Saturday 19th September 2015, matinée
It’s not very often that you hear the words ‘Farce’, ‘Saddam Hussein’ and ‘Steven Berkoff’ in the same sentence, but in his new play ‘Dinner with Saddam’, premiering at the Menier Chocolate Factory, that is exactly what Anthony Horowitz promises to serve up. As long term fans of farce and Berkoff (but not Saddam), our interest was piqued.
This is a subject close to Horowitz’s heart, according to interviews he gave last year. He has always wanted to write about Iraq, and this play was inspired by reports that Saddam Hussein used to drop in on private homes unannounced for fear of assassination attempts. At this point, we have to give credit where credit is due – this is far from obvious as an artistic choice, combining as it does all the clichés of the British drawing room comedy with the horror of welcoming the notorious Iraqi dictator as a dinner guest. Based on the premise that comedy is the only route to explore the humanity of the situation, the play is an anarchic mix of slapstick, scatology, political debate and dark deeds.
We begin with an ordinary family containing all the staple characters of a sit-com: the put-upon lazy husband, the nagging wife, the rebellious and perky daughter, whose lover is stashed upstairs disguised as a plumber, and the odious would-be son-in-law.
There is an awful lot of well-worn comedy here, but Sanjeev Bhaskar breathes life into the routines, with some of our favourite moments including a hilarious (and surprisingly successful) attempt to get into an overly tight suit, with the inevitable consequences, and a wonderful marrying of horror and domestic bickering when he turns a spade on one of the characters, only to be berated by his wife for buying cheap tools when it breaks. His delivery of the more madcap moments is enjoyable, but not sufficient to save the show from sinking into a bizarre grey space between true black comedy and serious political commentary.
We don’t think we have ever seen farce based on a real person, and perhaps this is part of the problem. Ultimately, the play’s unique selling point seems to be its downfall, as it can’t decide whether to mock Hussein or humanise him by giving him a platform. The result doesn’t gel – we can’t believe we are saying this given the premise, but Horowitz needed to be both bolder and more subtle. For a play which wanted to highlight the horrors of the 2003 invasion of Iraq and show solidarity with the ordinary people, none of the characters are very likeable, except perhaps the naive and idealistic daughter. Fair enough, the idea is to be satirical and poke fun at everyone equally, but whereas in a British context, this works because very often we are mocking the self-satisfied and privileged, here there is an uncomfortable undercurrent of mocking the ‘other’. And it is not the satisfying discomfort that comes from well-written and challenging drama, but the growing sense that this playwright is out of his depth.
And what did we think about Berkoff, that unique actor, writer and director who has frequently funded his innovative projects by playing cardboard baddies in Hollywood? He was too constrained by script and character for his talents to show through. It only made us wonder what he might have made of Saddam if he had been writing his own material.