Back in 2003, in the face of international criticism, overseas sanctions and the search for Weapons of Mass Destruction, apparently Saddam Hussein regularly took to paying surprise visits to the homes of ordinary people for dinner and to stay the night, in an outward attempt to show solidarity with his people – and to try to stay hidden from overseas forces, of course. Can you imagine answering a knock at the door only to discover Saddam Hussein had come for a sleepover? I think it might throw your plans for the evening into disarray, as indeed it does for the Alawai family, as Feydeau meets Fallujah in this brilliant new farce by Anthony Horowitz.
Not that life was flowing particularly smoothly for them in the first place. Ahmed and Samira have a bickering relationship – she’s unhappy with him because he’s lazy; he’s unhappy with her because she never stops arguing; I was going to say that underneath it all, they love each other, but actually I’m not entirely sure that’s the case. Ahmed insists that his forward-looking free-thinking daughter Rana will marry the horrendous Jammal, a bullying traffic cop who’s in it for the bribes and the blackmail; whereas Rana is in love with Sayid, an out-of-work actor, but, even worse than that, he’s Shia and they’re Sunni, so it’s a complete no-no. Sayid poses as a plumber to fix the Alawai’s rather distressing toilet issue, in an attempt to whisk Rana away from under their noses. Into this dyspeptic combination comes the knock on the door, first by Colonel Farouk of Saddam’s personal security services to make sure the home and family are suitable, and then by the great dictator himself. I’m not going to tell you what happens next; suffice to say murder, mayhem and mixed spice are all on the menu. For some, things end well; for others, not so well; for a couple, things end completely. And who knows what happens to them all at final curtain?
You know how, at his best, Alan Ayckbourn can present you with a painfully funny situation that makes you burst into uncontrollable laughter, which then catches in your throat as you realise the genuine personal tragedy that you’re laughing at? Well, in Dinner with Saddam, Anthony Horowitz has the same ability– setting up brilliantly funny scenes and conversations that make you laugh hard and long until you remember you’re laughing at or with a mass murderer, or at the destruction of a state and its people. Thus you pause and you reflect, and it’s very, very uncomfortable – but it’s also very, very funny. This play contains some of the blackest humour I’ve ever encountered and my advice is to go with the flow, accept it as comedy, and allow it to take you where it wants to go. If you need to question why you’re laughing at genuine terror, wait till after the play. Comedy can be savage; and even in the darkest worlds humour exists and keeps people going. Laughing at this play is a testament to human spirit and endurance.
It’s actually fascinating to observe a domestic situation in an ordinary house in Baghdad and to compare it with the Home Counties we know and love. It’s stating the obvious, but it’s somehow strangely rewarding to be shown just how like every other slightly errant family the Alawais are. The old-fashioned, faintly useless father figure. The hard-working, grumpy mother. The rebellious child. The bullying cousin. The wheedling wannabe son-in-law. The notion of braving the bad side of town to get the shopping you want. The over-ordering of tiles for the new mosque so that all the friends and family have lovely new bathroom and kitchen surfaces. A side terrace with climbing roses and a herb garden, screaming out for a makeover by a true horticulturalist. The fact that all this is so recognisable emphasises the horror of when ordinary people get caught up in tyranny, war and bombardment. The next time you hear about deaths from suicide bombers in the Middle East, the victims are probably just like this family – and by extension, just like yours. So it’s a real strength of this play that it brings home the reality of the situation for these people, yet retains its ability to be superbly funny at the same time.
It’s always a pleasure to return to the Menier because they rarely show a dud, and it’s eye-opening to see how they will have re-invented the auditorium to fit each new production. For Dinner with Saddam, they’ve got it as a traditional proscenium arch in front of the bench seats, with the stage extended very wide, so there may be areas of the stage you can’t see if you’re too far to the front; still, I love being in the front row of the Menier, because you can almost touch what’s going on. Tim Shortall’s set suggests a very respectable house, with some lovely Islamic blues and archways mixed in with common day-to-day functional designs. His costumes go a good way to playing a part in the comedy too, with Ahmed’s too-small pinstripe suit and Jammal’s explosive faecal disaster pants. As Mrs Chrisparkle so delicately put it, it’s probably not the first time someone had shat themselves in Saddam’s presence. As an aside, I’m not normally one to be impressed by jokes about farts and turds, but for some reason they really integrated well into the rest of the play and I surprised myself by finding them really funny.
Anthony Horowitz’s gleefully drawn characters have encouraged a genuinely sparkling cast to give some tremendous performances. It’s always a delight to see Sanjeev Bhaskar (we last saw him in Art back in 2002) and here he can really get to grips with handling the farcical downfall of the complacent and lazy Ahmed. Whether it be with his verbal duels with authority figures, engaging in sarcastic banter with his goodladywife, anxiously covering up his little corruptions or dragging corpses around the kitchen, it’s a brilliantly funny portrayal of a man out of his depth and scrambling to survive. And how inventive the casting to have him up against Steven Berkoff as Saddam – an actor and playwright I have long admired but never seen live. Mr Berkoff has blended Saddam with a little bit of Mafioso Godfather to create a genuinely threatening (would you expect anything else?) quietly ruthless ogre whose every word you would distrust. And jutting out of this characterisation at odd angles are brilliantly funny looks, asides, gestures; even the playful teases you might expect from an endearing uncle. Just his enunciating every letter in every Arabic name he mentions sends a slight shiver of fear down your spine. It’s a marvellous creation and a spellbinding performance.
The supporting cast are also excellent. There’s a wonderfully funny performance from Shobu Kapoor as Samira, hectoring her inadequate husband whenever she can, then transformed into a scared little girl when Saddam comes to call. Rebecca Grant plays Rana with just the right balance of gutsiness and compliance that you might expect from a daughter wishing to make her own way in life but also not wanting to upset her parents. Ilan Goodman brings out all the pantomime villain in Colonel Farouk, and the hamminess of the well-meaning Sayid; and there’s a terrifically greasy performance from Nathan Amzi as the ghastly Jammal, portraying him both as a vicious bully and a pathetic victim. Bally Gill and Zed Josef don’t have to say anything as the two soldiers, but they do it with authority.
We both absolutely loved this play; it’s beautifully and challengingly written, and features some brilliant comic performances. It’s not always a comfortable watch, but that’s what I love in the theatre: something to show me life from a different angle, and make me come out of the theatre a different person from the one that went in. This achieves that brilliantly. A must see!