THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
Dinner with Saddam
Farts and history lessons have probably never featured in the same play before so in that respect Anthony Horowitz's new comedy is probably ground-breaking. It's a curious blend. One minute it has all the subtlety of the most laboured TV sitcom from the '70s and the next it's trying to remind us how the West was complicit, over decades, in the tragedy of Iraq.
However, this is a romp with gags aplenty and not David Hare. Sanjeev Bhaskar (of The Kumars at No 42 fame) is at his comic best here playing an ordinary Joe in Baghdad, trying to keep his nose clean, when Saddam arrives at the family home one night, with no warning, requiring dinner and B&B. This was a common occurrence apparently as Saddam tried to keep one step ahead of either the assassin's bullet or an American laser-guided missile. He made use of these occasions 'to get closer to my people'. Needless to say the hosts didn't have any choice.
Saddam is played here by the great Steven Berkoff, who tones it all down and is less Bond villain and more Oliver Hardy. He sports a large hat, a civilian suit and a comedy moustache. This is probably wise considering the farcical contortions of all around him. Berkoff's casting though is inspired because there is really nobody to match him in portraying menace – the casual despatching of underlings for minor slights, the uneasy jokes, the deluded folksiness and that combination of being sinister and ludicrous, where all tyrants end up.
The plot is classic French farce, but sadly the comic set pieces are all wearily telegraphed. There's the stew accidentally spiked with rat poison, there's a huge turd liberated from the dodgy plumbing, there's an incriminating letter being passed round (mostly unread), there's forbidden lovers (one in a double disguise) and there's a comedy brawl and a suit that's too tight for its wearer. The gags are top rate but too often they get totally undermined by the rest of the dialogue, which resorts to plodding exposition to fill us in on Iraqi society – "Oh, we hate the Shias". Ouch.
Bhaskar's fans won't be disappointed. His charm and comic brio are to the fore and he's ably supported by Shobu Kapoor as his quick-witted wife, Rebecca Grant as the feisty daughter and Nathan Amzi as Jammal, the comic foil, who provides the farts.
Bhaskar's character is the comic archetype of the Little Man, powerless against vain and stupid leaders and so having nothing to do with politics, except for toadying up to whoever is currently in charge. It's a sympathetic plea for ordinary people just trying to get by.
Horowitz's anger at the brutality of the tyrant is well felt here as is his understanding of the supine nature of the unfortunate Iraqi people. His presentation of wily old Saddam's take on the real impact of the sanctions and the hypocrisy of the West is also well observed, but within the context of a knockabout farce, trying to enlighten us about why and how this war was conducted, is a misjudgement.Tickets: www.menierchocolatefactory.com