Dinner With Saddam
by Anthony Horowitz
Directed by Lindsay Posner
Menier Chocolate Factory, Southwark, London
Saturday 3rd October 2015, 8 pm
Sanjeev Bhaskar as Ahmed Alawai
Shobu Kapoor as Samira Alawai
Rebecca Grant as Rana Alawai, the daughter
Ilan Goodman as Sayid Al-Madini / Colonel Farouk
Nathan Amzi as Jamal
Steven Berkhoff as Saddam Hussein
Bally Gill, Zed Josef as soldiers
Anthony Horowitz states loud and clear that he framed this play as a farce. It is a Whitehall Farce with more toilet jokes than usual and a serious polemic second half. He states “I wrote a comedy because it was the only way I felt I could approach this subject. Otherwise, it just makes you want to cry.”
Samira (Shobu Kapoor) and Ahmed (Sanjeev Bhaskar)
The action tales place in Baghdad on 19th March 2003, the day the air strikes began, and in the home of Ahmed and Samira Alawai. They’re bickering gently away about food shortages, water shortages, blocked sewage systems. Samira is complaining that she’s never liked Ahmed since their arranged marriage 30 years ago. There’s a plumber in the house because a mighty turd has blocked the system in the absence of water. They don’t know that the “plumber” is really their daughter Rana’s boyfriend, Sayid, a soap opera actor, trying to get access so as to run away with Rana. He’s also a Shia and the family is Sunni. Not only that, they’re rival clans, so it’s a double Romeo & Juliet. Rana has been promised in an arranged marriage to her cousin Jamal, a traffic policeman, state informer and hilariously revoltingly sexist pig. The feisty Rana is a studying nursing at Saddam University, where she has become politicized and joined an anti-Saddam group. She has their newsletter, which the source of much hot potato fun in the plot … let’s call it Claudius’s letter carried by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
Amidst all this, Colonel Farouk turns up with two guards to announce that they have been selected as Saddam’s random place for dinner and an overnight stay. He “wants to meet his people” but he also wants to escape the American missiles, claimed to be able to land on a nickel (a claim we all believed until they started missing and hitting the wrong targets). In a series of mishaps, Farouk gets killed … I’m being careful here. Reviews in the nationals pointed me to at least half a dozen crucial very good plot jokes, and I found it undermined the play knowing what the funny bits were going to be. We know in the cinema that every single decent joke will have been in the trailer, but let’s leave some anticipation for the theatre. Saddam’s arrival closes act one.
Saddam arrives at the end of Act One (Stephen Berkoff)
Act two resolves the issue of Farouk, the dead head of security and Saddam’s chief food taster lying in the kitchen, because Farouk and Sayid look so much alike (a brilliant double role by Ilan Goodman). In Act 2, Saddam rants, raves, has a guard shot for yawning, and has an awful lot to say about Iraqi history in relation to the Western powers. And it’s true. He also boasts of how he freed women from arranged marriage and built women’s universities, while also listing the horrors he’s committed. Stephen Berkhoff is a BIG role, going from forced bonhomie, and sentimentality to incandescent rage at the turn of a second. He has studied big Arabic gestures and makes a point of over-pronouncing Arabic guttural sounds hugely. It’s like Orson Welles in sheer size of acting. And superb. We guessed the ending. You will.
Ahmed (Sanjeev Bakshar) and Saddam (Stephen Berkoff)
Saddam, when not boasting of his atrocities, makes a degree of sense. I remember the day Gaddafi realised the whole thing was falling apart around him. He was on TV ranting away, with a translator trying to keep up. The gist of what he said was ‘You can remove me. A year after you remove me, women will be afraid to walk in the streets. The burqua will have returned. Armed gangs will be killing each other.’ Oh, how the majority of viewers ridiculed him. The trouble was, he was absolutely right. While no one would ever claim they were feminists, these dictators were secular modernizers, and promoted women, and they suppressed the extremist religious elements. They were brutal and evil people, but life in Iraq and Libya since has been far worse for most people, let alone those who have died and are still dying in the process. Look at official bulletins from Syria. Women in Western clothes with no headscarfs are making statements for the government of Assad. There are so many justified reasons why those three; Saddam, Gaddafi and Assad, were deeply hated, but unfortunately, one of the reasons was also that women stopped wearing headscarfs and started getting an education. This is brought out squarely here, yet the women, Samira and Rana, are watching him in justified horror – great reactive listening from both in his big speeches. Rana in horror has to massage his back. The play brings out how terrified everyone is of Saddam. But he’s willing to let Rana, as a woman, get away with criticism and uncomfortable questions about him killing the Kurds and Shiites, not that he has the slightest regret about doing so, and he consciously does her a major favour with Jamal. He also gets to point out how many Iraqi children suffered and died in the years of sanctions too, a point made powerfully by Horowitz in the programme notes. This Saddam also acknowledges religion as a late ploy for support. He is definitely secular, and enjoys his Mateus Rose (and waxes lyrical about its virtues). Complex stuff.
Saddam brings his own food: L t R: Samira, Ahmed, Saddam
The reviewers are uncomfortable with Dinner With Saddam. Can it be funny? In twenty years maybe they say, but the people there are still living the consequences. We booked it on the basis of the director first and foremost, and Posner is an accomplished comedy director. There are many precious Whitehall farce moments, the funniest being Ahmed’s attempt to get into a suit that’s too tight for him. Great physical acting from Sanjeev Bhaskar. The Ahmed-Farouk fight in the kitchen is another superb piece of comic timing with the eye poke as a highlight, and earlier, Sanjeev, in true Brian Rix style gets to do the essential farce thing: drop his trousers. Plain white boxers were more subtle than expected. Actually it wasn’t a great trouser drop – you need Brian Rix’s knocking knees or funny legs like Mr Bean. Sanjeev was too physically normal!
Nathan Amzi’s vile Jamal is also an excellent comic interpretation, with the longest, loudest and foullest onstage flatulence joke ever. Shobu Kapoor’s irritated wife is first-rate, and Rebecca Grant’s Rana is the convincing conscience of the play in her reactions.
L to R: Samira, Ahmed, Rana, Sayid
A couple of niggles. I thought Sanjeev was a little careless in his page turning direction with the Arabic newspaper, a couple of times moving in the Roman alphabet direction. I wasn’t uncomfortable with the ‘broad comedy – serious point’ interface of the play, and enjoyed the classic comedy mix-ups which I have kept to myself. No plot spoilers. I did shake my head a little at a couple of bits of ‘lack of foreknowledge’ such as when Sayid suggests they run away to a peaceful country with a kind ruler and Rana says ‘Syria?’ They’re very tempting when you write to a set year in history and want comedy. When I first started on the “Dart Travis” pseudonymous “Music To Watch Girls By” which is set in 1967, many years ago, it spent a year at a major publisher who got me to chop 20,000 words, but also to eradicate totally half a dozen similar “lack of foreknowledge” conversations. They were right too. Then they lost interest, but I’m still grateful for both the sharpening and the eradication of those heavily-pointed “wrong” comments about the expected future. However, I think the Syria one worked, and everyone had guessed it by “kind ruler.”
Accents are “Arabs speaking English grammatically with an Arab accent.” I can’t think the alternative, just speaking English would have worked. At one time I could have distinguished between the accents of Libya, Saudi, Gulf with ease, but no longer and the Iraqis I know are teachers, or have been in the UK thirty years and speak perfect English. I wondered how “just generic Arab” the accent was at times. One review complains that the actors were ethnically English or Indian rather than Iraqi. OK, but no one ever complained about translated Moliere or Feydau being played by British actors instead of French actors.
One issue is the extreme width of the Menier Chocolate Factory stage, taking up the long side of the rectangular space. The kitchen set was separated from the living room set (and additionally there was a garden stage right of the kitchen, and stairs stage left of the living room). Because there was action taking place in the kitchen and living room at the same time, it felt a little bit like watching a tennis match from our position near the front.
Reviews ran from 1 star (The Stage, British Theatre com), to 2 star (Claire Allfree Daily Telegraph, also the Evening Standard) to 3 star (Michael Billington, Guardian) to four star (Jewish News). The Independent review by Paul Taylor is extremely positive (superbly plotted / I’m still aching with laughter). The negative reviews complained about feeble comedy, obvious plot signposting and lack of taste. Maybe they’ve sharpened the comedy since Press Night. This Saturday night’s audience laughed a lot and applauded long. Or maybe half laughed really a lot and half didn’t laugh at all. It’s hard to judge. I laughed a lot.
Possibly Horowitz is too successful for critics with his long run of major TV writing credits (Foyles War, Midsommer Murders, some Poirot) as well as the latest James Bond novel, Trigger Mortis, new in the shops as this play runs. Sanjeev Bhaskar is best-known as a TV comedy star too.
I’m hovering between four stars and three, so a 3.5, and certainly don’t understand those ones and twos.