Upon seeing the world première of Anthony Horowitz's new play "Dinner with Saddam" at the Menier Chocolate Factory in London, one can't help but feel awkward and uncomfortable at a play that tries to highlight Iraq's modern history, with all its conflicts and suffering, in a farcical way where misery is presented as a comedy for the London audience. While it does succeed in generating constant laughter from its audience, the question is whether the Iraqi people are ready to laugh or find their years of suffering a source of comedy for others especially as for most the wounds have not yet healed.
The production, directed by Lindsay Posner, is set in the Sunni Alawi family's house in Baghdad on the 21 March 2003 – a day that will end in "Shock and Awe", the start of the American attack and occupation of Iraq.
The father, Ahmed played by Sanjeev Bhaskar of "Goodness Gracious Me" and "The Kumars at No. 42″, is an ordinary Iraqi – a construction supervisor who refuses to believe that there'll be an American bombardment just as he did not believe that the war with Iran would happen nor the invasion of Kuwait as the audience are informed by his wife Samira played by Shobu Kapoor.
Samira represents the voice of the street, the panic of yet another war on an already battered nation and the sense of reality in opposition to Ahmed who portrays a fair number of Iraqis who, for the sake of survival, "kept their head down", did not discuss politics and chose to reiterate propaganda news to ensure the safety of their family.
The household is already full of tension; Samira's stock piling food ahead of the imminent war, Ahmed's trying to fix the blocked drain while the house has no water supply, and the couple's daughter Rana's refusal to marry her cousin.
Rana, played by Rebecca Grant, is also a member of an underground opposition revolutionary group. These tensions are intensified as the family are informed that President Saddam Hussein is arriving for dinner.
As Ahmed unintentionally poisons Saddam's aid and head of security, it is left to Samira and Rana to welcome the president and entertain him – a reflection of Iraqi society where women were often left to deal with many aspects of life while their husbands, brothers, fathers etc were on the battlefield.
Rana's unwillingness to commit to a marriage arranged by her father, and her dream of marrying an Iraqi Shia was a weak attempt by the writer to fit all the issues that plagued Iraq for decades into one play. The Shia/Sunni tension was never a real issue before the US invasion and even if it did exist then it would have been anywhere but Baghdad. Rana's parents' refusal of her lover would have been more convincing if the only objection was his profession – he is an aspiring actor – which, in a conservative society, would not be deemed a "proper job".
Berkoff's portrayal of Saddam was quite impressive as he managed to bring to the stage the complex nature of a man that fascinated and divided the world even beyond his death. Saddam's oblivion to the effect of UN sanction on his nation, his failure to recognise his brutality and tyranny and his belief that all his actions are justified for the sake of "his people" is very close to the image that has always been associated with him.
At the dinner table the conversation is rather one-sided as Saddam lists all that he has done for his country and people, meanwhile Rana is the voice of opposition who reminds him of the less positive aspect of his rule such as the continuous wars and the gassing of the Kurds. He, however, reminds her that he would not have come into power without the help of the CIA and the West. It is at this point that the audience is introduced to the Western world's involvement and contribution to Iraq's tragic history.
Saddam's sudden visit, which is intended to confuse the American army about his whereabouts, does not only bring fear and tension but also introduces the Alawi family to a life they have never seen, one of imported food and Portuguese wine. The irony that is represented by both the writer and director is how isolated Saddam was from "his people".
The play ends with two major metaphors or symbolic acts; whether they are intentional or not is unclear but there is almost a hint at what Saddam's fate or what his post 21 March days are going to be like through the bag of turd he is given by the oblivious Ahmed.
As the curtains are about to go down, Samira again stresses that the US is going to bomb the country while the ever optimistic – or possibly deluded – Ahmed thinks nothing will happen and they will come to no harm but they may be rid of Saddam.
The play emphasises that hope is short-lived concept in Iraq and no one is able to escape the country's miserable fate.
"Dinner With Saddam" is being performed at the Menier Chocolate Factory, London, until 14 November.
Photo credit: Catherine Ashmore