Page last updated at 10:27 GMT, Tuesday, 7 October 2008 11:27 UK

Iraq comedy holds mirror to crisis

By Hugh Sykes
BBC News, Baghdad

Scene from Jib al-Malik, Jibu
Jib al-Malik, Jibu has been playing to packed houses in Baghdad

The scene is the Iraqi parliament. They're all talking at the same time. And arguing and gesticulating.

There's a shout: "What time is it?" From off-stage there's another shout. "It's salary time!"

The members of parliament rush out, leaving a deserted chamber.

The scene is from Jib al-Malik, Jibu (Bring The King, Bring Him) written by leading Iraqi comedian, actor and playwright Haider Munathir.

Haider Munathir
A true artist must be a mirror to the people and must not be afraid of the authorities
Haider Munathir
The first performance was on the first day of Eid, the cheerful festival that breaks the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.

It's the first time there have been evening performances at the National Theatre in Baghdad since violence began to exert its grip here in 2004.

A car bomb exploded a hundred metres from the main entrance a few hours before the first night. Two people were killed.

But the first night sold out. The theatre staff had to find an additional 150 seats.

The theatre has been full every night for nearly a week now.

Contagion skin-deep

After the parliament scene, the set revolves to reveal grey concrete blast walls, just like the anti-blast walls all over Baghdad.

There's graffiti on one of the blocks: "Down with Sectarianism."

One of the actors, Hak el-Shok, tells me: "Sectarianism is a very new phenomenon here. We have caught sectarianism like you catch the flu.

Iraqi National Theatre
Evening shows at the National Theatre are a sign of more peaceful times

"But now it's healed - there is no flu any more. I am Shia. My sister is married to a Sunni man. This is very common here. Sectarianism is only skin-deep."

An old man shuffles onto the stage, dressed in torn clothes and a barrel. It's labelled "Oil", in Arabic and English.

The oil-barrel man says: "I feel I've lost my life, even though I live here. I don't need politics, I need bread."

Haider Munathir - who wrote the play, as well as directing it and playing the lead role - explains why he wrote that line.

"Life here has been ruined by politicians. They're paid too much and they solve nothing. Our leaders are political teenagers."

Rebuilding role

Munathir's wife, Zahra Bidden, who is also in the show, is cautious about the relatively peaceful days that Baghdad is enjoying now.

Oil-barrel man, from play by Haider Munathir
The man in an oil barrel shows how Iraqis feel let down by their leaders
"It's a challenge for us," she says, "but it's a good sign that people are coming out now in the evenings, going to parks, walking by the river. And they are coming to the theatre. We mustn't lose hope - theatre is life."

Another of the actors, Asad Amer, is enjoying the new freedom of artistic expression. Under Saddam Hussein, a satire like this would have had to be vetted by a monitoring committee. Now, they can perform what they like.

"But there are limits," he added, "We have to be responsible. We have to monitor ourselves now. Freedom brings responsibilities - we must not be impolite or disrespectful."

Near the end of the play, there's a slow song - a plea to God, imploring: "Please, change Iraq - we've had enough."

Haider Munathir says the arts should be made a government priority: "We play a major role building the new Iraq."

He says the old regime regarded him as a "menace", and banned many of his productions.

"A true artist must be a mirror to the people," he added, "and we must not be afraid of the authorities."

And the king in the title of the play? The crowds don't recognise him. He's one of them.

It seems like a metaphor. The people don't need a king. They are their own kings.

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