Life, laughs, death and despair by Danú

It’s always a pleasure to flag up new work by someone you trust to deliver the goods. For us, Danú Theatre is an ever-reliable source of interesting theatre, always well directed and cleverly staged; and it may not be a conventional professional theatre company, but you always get professional work.

In nearly ten years Danú has racked up around 30 productions, with highlights including an Emirati version of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House; the semi-documentary My Name is Rachel Corrie; Martin McDonagh’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane; an excellent The Shadow of a Gunman by Sean O’Casey; and The Al Hamlet Summit by Sulayman Al Bassam (Danú has also produced three original full-length pieces of its own). If you detect a bias towards Arabic and Irish theatre, you’d be correct – Danú’s main man Padraig Downey (he founded and runs the company) is emphatically Irish and clearly sees parallels between the country of his birth and the place he lives now. Indeed, there’s a theatrical streak in both, one that has been honed by an imperialist past.

So it’s a pleasure to flag up Danú Theatre’s new programme – an evening of two short plays adapted from highly pertinent Arab-language originals, both directed by Downey. Baghdadi Bath is a 30-minute adaptation of an original by the exiled Iraqi playwright and director Jawad Al Assadi; set in a hammam, it details the lives and relationship of two brothers who work as bus drivers on a perilous route between Baghdad and Damascus during a time of tumult, chaos and insurgency. Hostage-taking, thievery and executions have become the new reality; each day on their route could be their last, but in desperation and with large families to support they have no other option. Deception, bribery, and betrayal wreak havoc as the two brothers interrogate each other’s loyalty and allegiances in the everyday horror of surviving in a war zone.

Bathtime for Farouk Hesham and Abishek Nair

Assadi’s Iraq itself resembles a dilapidated bathhouse, where the tubs are filthy with old bloodstains and stale urine, where foreign soldiers come to bathe their guard dogs. Fraternal camaraderie turns divisive as a result of squabbles over money, lofty morals and the question of support for the Americans. Baghdadi Bath is one of the few political plays about contemporary Iraq, and one of the very few by an Iraqi. It’s also one of the earliest dramatic reaction in the Arab world to the US invasion of Iraq.

Baghdadi Bath stars Farouk Hesham and Abishek Nair as the brothers.

The second play (following a short interval) is a 70-minute version of The Dictator, originally written in Arabic in 1969 by the great Lebanese playwright Issam Mahfouz. It’s been described as an absurdist classic, a minimalist mixture of Ionesco, Plautus and Beckett, with fierce and frequently hilarious jabs at despotism in the Arab world. The review in Lebanon’s Daily Star called it “a masterpiece of claustrophobia, an exploration of despotism, delusion, and power fames”.

The Dictator is the story of a tyrant, a mentally disturbed individual under the illusion that he is humanity’s long-awaited saviour, and of his comic and unpredictable assistant, Saadoun. Both characters engage in comedy banter as the play opens (“Suspend all the political parties. Arrest their members. Destroy their houses. Seize their thoughts!”) but then things drift into darker themes and existential angst (“God has created the world upside down so that man becomes pleased when he straightens it out”) that culminates in a climactic ending.

The dictator (Abdullah Al Qassab) despatches his man Saadoun (Sherif Hamdy)

It’s good, especially if you relate at all to the absurd – and especially the absurdities of power. For this production the dictator is played by the Emirati actor/comedian Abdullah Al Qassab, last seen to good effect in Danú’s 2017 version of A Doll’s House. Sherif Hamdy, well known on the Egyptian tv and movie circuit and a recent arrival in the UAE, takes Saadoun.

The double bill runs at the Courtyard in Al Quoz, where there are shows at 8pm nightly on 19, 20, 21 and 22 January. It’s free, but pre-booking is advised since it’s first-come-first-served basis and that means a seat cannot be guaranteed …

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