Arabic plays adapted into English take UAE audiences on dark and satirical journey

Baghdadi Bath and The Dictator, both written by renowned regional playwrights, are being retold at Courtyard Playhouse Dubai

From left, Farouk Hesham as Majid and Abishek Nair as Hamid in Baghdadi Bath; Sherif Hamdy as Sadoon and Abdullah Al Qassab as The General in The Dictator. Photo: Danu Dubai
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Danu Dubai theatre company is staging two plays adapted from Arabic into English.

Running until Sunday, Baghdadi Bath and The Dictator will be performed consecutively at the Courtyard Playhouse Dubai in Al Quoz, both directed by Padraig Downey.

Danu Dubai specialises in Arab and Irish theatre and has presented a number of popular and celebrated productions including Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, I Am Yusuf and My Name is Rachel Corrie.

Downey, who has visited and worked with theatre practitioners across the region including recently in Palestine and Morocco, believes that both plays offer an interesting perspective on various themes audiences from different backgrounds and experiences can relate to.

“I think theatre can be there to entertain,” Downey tells The National. “It also can be there to make you think, to uplift you, transport you to a different world, or to educate you. It's important that we see a form of theatre as something that can basically change us and alter us.”

The first play, Baghdadi Bath is a 30-minute short piece adapted from the original by celebrated Iraqi playwright, theatre director and poet Jawad Al Assadi.

The story is set in a bathhouse in Baghdad and follows the relationship of two brothers who are struggling to survive and care for their families during the 2003 US-led invasion of the country and its subsequent occupation.

The brothers, Majid and Hamid, work as bus drivers on the dangerous route between Baghdad and Damascus. While sitting in the bathhouse, covered in filth, they recount to each other the morally questionable work they have done and continue to do. Their conversation is marred with hostility as the brothers interrogate each other’s alliances, loyalty and political views.

“Fraternal issues are always an issue, with war or without war,” Downey says.

“But also, you've got the idea of two brothers who are on opposing sides, one supporting the Americans and one against the Americans. We see and hear directly from two representatives of Iraqi culture and society at the time.”

Abishek Nair, who plays Hamid, also believes that the two characters’ dynamic as brothers adds another layer of conflict to their relationship. “It's a very detailed study of a very particular sibling relationship,” Nair says.

“The two of them share a very warped, dysfunctional relationship where they depend on one another quite a bit. But it's parasitic. It does quite a bit of long-term damage to both of them.”

To research his part as Hamid, Nair read about Iraq during the time period the play is set in, which, while not stated explicitly, is implied to be 2005. Additionally, he looked into the effects of PTSD, which he believes the character suffers from.

The brothers, despite their issues and squabbles, also share a bond that is shown in the story through Iraqi music. “The music plays a very important role in this particular play,” he adds.

“There's a song in there that both the brothers know, and it kind of formed this really beautiful moment of like, like a shared experience between the two of them.”

The later part of the evening will see a performance of the 70-minute English adaptation of the 1969 Arabic play The Dictator by the renowned Lebanese playwright Issam Mahfouz. The Director is considered a masterpiece of absurdist, where a man, known as The General, suffers from mental health issues and believes he is the world’s long-awaited saviour.

Set in a fictional world, the play focuses on his grandiose delusions and his existence in tandem with Saadoun, his helper. The rising and falling power dynamic between the two progresses throughout the play, as their conversations and actions weave through satire and comedy, before plummeting into darkness and existential angst.

“It's not an easy role to play,” says Emirati actor and comedian Abdullah Al Qassab, who plays The General.

“He [The General] has a lot of self-loathing and self-hatred, and he projects that onto the world and to the person that appears to be with him, Saadoun.”

The Dictator poses many questions, leaving resolutions in the hands of the audience.

“Everybody will have their own thoughts,” adds Al Qassab. “And that's what I find interesting. Everyone has their own perceptions of it.”

Egyptian actor and author, Sherif Hamdy, who plays Saadoun, agrees that The Dictator is a play that has multiple meanings. And, while it may sound like political story, it is more than that, Hamdy says, it's about how people operate across all segments of society.

“When you go deep, you find that the concept can really arise in any department of society, whether within one family, or socially, or in the workplace,” he says.

The multiple readings of the play and many of its absurdist qualities, not only make it an accessible story for audiences but also reveals the masterful writing of the script itself.

“This script is like a big twisted puzzle with lots of questions, but at the same time includes many answers,” Hamdy says.

“All the answers are right, nothing is wrong. And that I believe that makes it suitable for all viewers of all affiliations, ideas and ages, so it makes this piece very appealing.”

While both plays grapple with powerful, dark and existential themes, they also present an opportunity for audiences to connect with the universal elements of each story.

“All I want is for the human element to be shown so that we can understand that we're all human beings,” Downey adds.

“At the core, even though we're from different places we all have similar stories, and we all need to understand what those stories are, what responsibility we have, and how we continue to play in those narratives.”

Baghdadi Bath and The Dictator are running until Sunday at the Courtyard Playhouse Dubai, Al Quoz

Updated: January 21, 2023, 3:02 AM