September 24 2015
New play imagines the butcher of Baghad in your living room and exchanging pleasantries…
APPARENTLY, the late despotic dictator of Iraq, Saddam Hussein, used to drop in on the homes of ordinary people for dinner, quite without warning and very randomly.
Any likely assassins wouldn’t find it at all easy to track his movements as he changed them from evening to evening and his close bodyguards and the imagined ‘Colonel Farouk’ made sure his hosts adhered to president protocol.
It was said also that Saddam liked to mingle with his people, show them his solidarity and reassure them that he led the country in their interests.
All this forms the basis for Anthony Horowitz’s entertaining and exuberant comedy, “Dinner With Saddam” which is currently showing at the Menier Chocolate Factory in South London until November 14.
Sanjeev Bhaskar plays Ahmed Alawai, a much troubled construction supervisor manager, who is simply trying to keep his head down and his family out of trouble. His much put upon wife, played by Shobu Kapoor, is a versatile woman with a sharp, humorous tongue and no little respect either for her husband or the regime run by Saddam. Kapoor is more expansive, while Bhaskar does the quiet fear at dinner very well and Linsday Posner’s direction keeps it all just about under control.
Ahmed’s daughter, Rana, is the jewel in her father’s eye but he has betrothed her to cousin Jammal, a rather oleaginous, overweight traffic policeman with ideas well above his station.
Rana has a secret fiancé (Ilan Goodman) who finds an original way to befriend his potentially disapproving father-in-law and and seek acceptance.
We learn that he is a Shia and really ‘an out of work actor’, though he is keen to dispel any notion that he has not worked for a while.
It isn’t quite Farce (Horowitz writes in the programme of his debt to 1960s playwright Joe Orton), and the work has many characteristics of that style of writing.
Into this swirling, swelling concoction comes swaggering Saddam – Steven Berkoff somewhat in his element.
It’s a bizarre situation, having to entertain the leader of your country in your home (when you have very little to offer), and is made all the worse for knowing that one wrong move could mean the firing squad and death or worse.
Saddam was well known for his cruelty and vindictiveness and rarely let an opportunity to show off his disdain and immense power over ordinary folk, go. So, to have dinner with him was an ordeal of the highest order – exacerbated in this play, by the fact that all but Jammal are not particularly keen on Saddam to varying degrees.
Nathan Amzi is especially good as Jammal, perfectly encapsulating the bully and the snitch, who also revels in the misfortune of others. He suffers a hilarious fate when he is forced to drink water from a flower vase and clearly has bowel and flatulence issues.
Berkoff plays Saddam with that curious sort of charm and aggression that make it hard to know just how the President will react to anything.
Part of Horowitz’s keenness for this subject is the anger he feels toward George Bush and Tony Blair for launching a particularly pointless war – there never were any weapons of mass destruction.
Somewhere in all this, especially in the second half, the play shows signs of being something more substantial and meaningful.
The absurdity of Saddam’s reign of fear and loathing is not that hard to delineate and makes for good, if dark, humour.
What is more difficult and indeed painful was that Saddam was once an ally of the West and that on some fronts he was relatively progressive and tolerant – people were, by and large, reasonably educated, some to a high degree and that he did not deny women the right to study or work.
Iraq has come quite some distance in the post Second World War period and is no longer colonised or subjugated by any foreign power. Horowitz draws attention to this and gives Saddam some decent lines as a man who did raise living standards and restored pride in an Iraqi nation.
Of course he was a brutal tyrant too, and killed thousands of his own people, but he was this long before Bush and Blair agreed somewhat unilaterally that something had to be done about it.
In writing something simply funny and entertaining, Horowitz misses something more profound and powerful. This isn’t the play for that, agreed but there’s definitely more in this than a barrel of laughs and a nice, untaxing afternoon/evening at the theatre.
ACV rating:*** (out of five)
Main pic: Sanjeev Bhaskar as Ahmed Alawai and Steven Berkoff as Saddam
Pics: Catherine Ashmore
‘Dinner with Saddam’ – by Anthony Horowitz at Menier Chocolate Factory, until November 14
Tuesdays to Saturdays, 8pm.
Saturdays and Sundays – 3:30pm, Mondays until October 12 (No performances on Thursdays until after October 15) at
Menier Chocolate Factory theatre, 53 Southwark St, London SE1 1RU.
Box Office 020 7378 1713
Info/Tickets (including meal deals in restaurant)