Dinner with Saddam, Horowitz’s comedic look at Iraq
London - Dinner with Saddam revolves around what happens when Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, played by Steven Berkoff from War and Remembrance and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, turns up unannounced for dinner at Ahmed’s house just as the US “shock-and-awe” bombing campaign begins in 2003.
Fearing assassination and US air strikes, Saddam was known to drop in uninvited on ordinary people’s houses.
He would reward his hosts for their hospitality but anything meeting Saddam’s disapproval could also meet death.
Personal and political issues are on the menu as Ahmed, played by Sanjeev Bhaskar from TV comedies Goodness Gracious Me and The Kumars at No.42, and his family carefully watch their words and actions. Saddam orders a guard shot for yawning, an example of his often random brutality.
“I cannot see any way to write about the horror of Iraq except through comedy,” playwright Anthony Horowitz wrote in the Spectator magazine in July 2014.
Given the violence of the insurgency against the US-led occupation after Saddam’s overthrow in 2003 and the horrors of sectarian war that have followed, some Iraqis feel a degree of nostalgia for the order ruthlessly imposed by the dictator and his henchmen.
“Of course he was one of the most evil people who has ever walked this Earth,” said Horowitz. But “at the end of the day, he was a human being and human beings do horrible things and do good things. I don’t believe that he was 100% bad… We have the habit of making absolute monsters of anybody we don’t agree with,” he told an audience at the Hay Festival in 2014.
Horowitz has said that former British prime minister Tony Blair’s decision to go to war in Iraq in 2003 had “besmirched democracy and politics” and that he had “a smidgen of sympathy” for Saddam.
While Saddam’s forces dropped chemical weapons on his own citizens, most famously on the Kurdish town of Halabja in 1988, it was a crime under his rule not to send your son or daughter to school after the age of 6, education was free for everyone, male or female, all the way to university and scholarships were given to thousands to study abroad.
In the play, Rana, Ahmed’s daughter, is studying medicine and is an activist having an affair with a plumber. When Saddam is told that she is to marry Jamal, a fat traffic warden, he says, “But she does not love him.” Under Saddam’s regime, women were allowed to choose whom they married. Jamal talks with pride about Iraq’s infrastructure developed under Saddam when water and electricity were available in every city and village and at least one health clinic was built in every village.
Dams, roads and bridges were constructed and Iraq started making its own radios, televisions, heaters and air conditioners.
But Jamal is also a hypocrite who extorts people, accepting bribes, instead of issuing them ticket fines. He symbolises the endemic corruption of officials during the Saddam era.
In the play Saddam makes a speech about some of his achievements: Nationalisation of the oil industry strengthened the economy as oil production tripled. Farmers were given land, loans, modern machinery, discounted seeds and other resources necessary to overcome uncultivable land. Loans with minimal interest were provided for the middle class and professionals.
A compelling performance full of chaos and comedy, Dinner with Saddam will be performed through November 14th at the Menier Chocolate Factory Theatre, London.