Killing jokes: the two plays which are making bad taste delicious

 Dinner With Saddam and Hangmen dare to put real people, and ideology, into their brands of dark farce.

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One advantage that theatre dramatists have over screenwriters is the lesser censoriousness of the commissioners. It would be a hard sell in cinema or TV to pitch a farce about the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq, or a comedy concerning the rivalry between the British hangman Albert Pierrepoint and a junior executioner. That may explain why two writers with considerable television or cinema credits – Anthony Horowitz (Foyle’s War) and Martin McDonagh (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths) – have realised these ideas on the stage.

Horowitz’s Dinner with Saddam follows a period in which the prolific multi-genre writer has been adopting different literary voices, publishing authorised continuations of the Sherlock Holmes and James Bond series. These experiments in style continue in his theatrical debut, in which Horowitz becomes, startlingly, a sort of Iraqi Alan Ayckbourn.

Apart from the Arabic script on the paper that Dad is reading – and the fact the reading matter is hurled at a rat in the corner – the kitchen and living-room set might promise a domestic comedy set in Berkshire. This, however, is Baghdad on the night in 2003 when the Bush-Blair air strikes began; and the bumbling, wife-baiting Ahmed Alawi leads a family that has been chosen to give a meal and a bed to President Saddam Hussein, who is avoiding his palaces because their co-ordinates have been entered into US missiles.

Such drop-ins were a documented reality of Saddam’s Iraq and offer an apocalyptic twist on the old sitcom plot of the boss coming round for dinner, with social embarrassment threatening not loss of face but of the whole head. With efficient farce stagecraft, the writer primes props – mislabelled jar, blocked pipe, borrowed suit – that hit their targets later.

In a programme note, Horowitz mentions dramatists he has consulted for examples, including Molière and Joe Orton. He doesn’t cite Christopher Hampton’s 1982 adaptation of George Steiner’s novella The Portage to San Cristobal of AH, but, consciously or not, the most daring section of his script matches the frisson at the end of Hampton’s play, when Hitler ranted that he had stolen his ideas, including concentration camps, from the Allies.

Horowitz’s equivalent soliloquy for Saddam rages that economic sanctions (preferred by many liberals to bombing) have killed half a million Iraqi children. Successfully accommodating such moral anger within an evening featuring gags about flatulence and tight trousers makes this a formidable achievement for a novice theatre writer. Steven Berkoff’s Saddam expertly jerks between absurdity and terrifying malevolence, while Sanjeev Bhaskar, as the Baghdad dad, finds every note of comedy and pathos in a man who has somehow found himself in an episode of Terry and June in which Hitler comes to play bridge.

Also daringly placing real people and an ideological controversy within a dark farce involving hidden corpses is Hangmen, the first stage play for a decade by Martin McDonagh, who deserts his usual setting of recent rural Ireland (The Lieutenant of Inishmore, The Cripple of Inishmaan) for Oldham in the 1960s, around the time that death sentences for crime were abolished. This news provides a talking point at the pub run by Harry, who, as he puts it in a characteristic line of McDonagh dialogue, went “neck and neck” with Pierrepoint in their time as the UK’s number-one and -two executioners.

Harry, who always wore a bow tie to his hangings, is loosely based on the real Harry Allen, a capital punisher-turned-publican, but McDonagh’s aim is less biodrama than savage slapstick in which a servant of the law is forced to reconsider his notions of revenge and justice. With great dramatic cunning, the debate about capital punishment is confined to five lines at the end of the play, but is devastating when it comes.

McDonagh’s facility with both dialogue and monologue has always been highly ­spoken of and this script is packed with signature jests, threats and desperate parries. The character of Mooney (Johnny Flynn), a slick ladykiller, feels deliberately indebted to the hero of Orton’s Entertaining Mr Sloane, showing, after Horowitz’s play, how influential that 1960s dramatist currently is.

Were there an Olivier award for Most Terrifying Stage Presence, David Morrissey as Harry, moving from smoothness to fury in a beat, would be duking it out this year with Berkoff in Dinner with Saddam. Rarely has bad taste been as refreshingly delicious as in these two magnificently provocative dramas. 

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. 

This article appears in the 24 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Revenge of the Left