Theater der Zeit


The Life of a Theatrical Vagabond – Iraqi Director and Performer Monadhil Daood

von Arifa Akbar

Erschienen in: Recherchen 104: Theater im arabischen Sprachraum – Theatre in the Arab World (12/2013)



Monadhil Daood has a large physical presence. He’s not particularly tall but he is commanding. He smiles with his eyes and his voice is deep and expressive, the kind that, when raised, would rumble with emotion and wash across its audience. It is no surprise that he has always acted, alongside his work as playwright and theatre director, on stages in Paris, London, New York, Tokyo, Washington and Amsterdam, as well as the Middle East. He’s one of the most recognisable Iraqi actors on Arab television, having starred in various prime time shows, most notably, as a Mafioso boss in a hit series, and as a police chief during the Tahrir Square demonstrations, which was filmed in Cairo in 2011, and caused a mini uproar in Iraq. His stage career, meanwhile, has brought him as much infamy as acclaim in his home city of Baghdad, from which he fled after staging a politically incendiary play at the age of 21. He could not have known it then, but that audacious move earned him exile for nearly three decades and only ended with the downfall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003, when he finally returned to Iraq.

Yet Daood insists that he is not engaged in making political theatre. Love, not politics, was the theme of his latest production — a Shakespearean adaptation, Romeo and Juliet in Baghdad, and love remained central to the production despite the bombed-out backdrop, the machine-gun fire, the suicide belts and factional Islamic Sunni-Shia violence that divided his Houses of Montague and Capulet, which were re-situated to post-invasion Baghdad. “I don’t like to talk about making political theatre,” he says.

“Theatre is conflict, but the question a director must ask is ‘which conflict do I want to show?’ My message in this play is that love is better than the conflict between the families.” Conflict, both within theatre and in the real world, has trailed Daood’s practice from the start, ever since he directed his anti-war student production at the Fine Arts University in Baghdad during the Iran-Iraq conflict of the early 1980s. Forced to live and work abroad, he made a peripatetic theatrical career that took him to Iran, Syria, Sweden and Russia. He intermittently worked as a porter, a tailor and the publisher of samizdat in Tehran in the early days of exile. He re-established himself as a playwright in Damascus and then went on to Russia where he developed his critical theory of Arab theatre. Going back home in 2003 was a profoundly emotional experience, he reflects, both on a personal and professional level.

“For Iraq, life began again in 2003; it was a very hot summer and I met my friends. We sat in an Iraqi coffee shop drinking tea. They were very tired and poor but they had a lot of energy and we talked and talked. I hadn’t felt this energy in any other country I had been in. They were talking about the future, about theatre, about politics. It was a new era.”

He set up the Iraqi Theatre Company in 2008 to resuscitate the nation’s languishing theatrical tradition. His role in Iraq has since become pivotal and audiences have responded to his productions with genuine excitement. Despite his internationalism, his theatrical roots have always remained entrenched in an Arab tradition, and his latest productions have primarily been made for Iraqi audiences, he says.

Daood, aged 52, has re-conceived a number of Shakespearean productions including an Iraqi version of Hamlet. His latest production, Romeo and Juliet in Baghdad, was staged in Baghdad and at the 2012 World Shakespeare Festival in London and Stratford-upon-Avon, and for this, he adapted the language of Shakespeare’s original, 16th century text into modern Iraqi vernacular in order to broaden its appeal and make it, linguistically, more egalitarian. Where he might have translated the text into high Arabic used by the cultural establishment, he opted for the Iraqi-Arab dialect spoken by the people on the street.

“I don’t like amazing language in theatre. I need very easy, clear and simple language. I believe in making the action clear and so I need to revo­lutionise the language in Shakespeare.” “I don’t need the language of the poet. I need the language of the people. I need my audience to understand it and live it. I can’t make my theatre just for the cultured few. It’s for everyone. Shakespeare gives guidelines only. You make your Shakespeare text.”

Alongside this, he added topical themes that had clear resonances to the state of contemporary Iraq. It is a suicide bomb, and not poison or a dagger that claims the lives of his Romeo and Juliet. The text is sprinkled with references to (the controversial security firm) Blackwater as well as the American reconstruction effort, while Juliet’s father, Capulet, wears the red-and-white chequered keffiyeh of the Sunnis, and Montague dons the black-and-white scarf commonly worn by Shias. Moreover, the final scene is set in Baghdad’s Cathedral of Our Lady of Salvation, destroyed when al-Qaeda terrorists stormed it in a suicide mission.

Daood mixed the old with the new and incorporates ancient motifs of flying carpets with the wreckage of modern Baghdad that the characters glimpse as they fly on them. He also removed the sexual imagery from the Queen Mab speech, originally delivered by Mercutio, so that it would be less culturally risqué for a conservative Iraqi audience. Instead, he substituted it with an ancient folk story about a beetle looking for a husband. He regards none of these adaptations as disfigurement of the original text. “When I read Romeo and Juliet again, I thought ‘this is family in Baghdad’. We needed to change many things in the text but underneath it all, it was the same story and same characters with Iraqi feelings, Iraqi music, Iraqi costume and Iraqi problems.”

Daood’s father was a Communist politician and also a central influence in his theatrical development. “He was my first teacher when I was beginning to study theatre,” he says. Daood’s final year production at university was a text by the Egyptian playwright Abdul Rahman Alsharqawi called A Boy Called Mehran, whose protagonist stood up to a dictator by saying ‘no’ to war. “Why did I choose this text? I needed to say something that was political and human and cultural and religious. Theatre is all of those things.”

Its form was as radical as its content. Daood repositioned the stage so that the division between actors and audience dissolved. “I changed where the audience sat. I put their chairs on the [same level as the] stage. There was no proscenium arch dividing them anymore. The audience sat on the stage alongside the actors.”

The production might have been a fearless attempt at freedom of expression but it inflamed the regime. There were three full-house performances, at the end of which everyone — Daood’s family, his co-actors, students and teachers — became frightened of the consequences. “I felt, when I was acting, it was very dangerous. It was all about the war. I felt the audience loved it, but was scared.”

Daood fled across the border, first to Iran, then Syria, after Saddam’s intelligence officers began inquiring after him at the university campus. His early iconoclasm, that has streaked the rest of his career, was encouraged by his tutor at the Fine Arts University, Kassim Mohamed, whom Daood describes as a ‘second father’. “He studied in Moscow and when he came back to Baghdad he changed theatre in Iraq. He used the Arab tradition, but he also focused on the forgotten aspects of everyday life, and encouraged us to find ‘our’ conflict on stage, and to look around in our world to what is relevant to us for dramatisation.”

During his time in Damascus, Daood was drawn to some of the principles outlined by the Polish director Jerzy Grotowski in his concept of ‘poor theatre’. Grotowski’s focus on the actor’s physical presence on stage as the primary spectacle greatly appealed to Daood, as well as the stripping down of the mise-en-scéne so that all distractions would be removed
from the stage. The relationship between the audience and actor would, as a result, become the central focus. With this principle in mind, Daood staged the Russian playwright Grigori Gorin’s tragic-comedy, Forget Herostratus! based on the ancient Greek arsonist figure of Herostratus. In order to strip away any elaborate theatrical artifice and to prioritise the actor-audience relationship, he staged the play on a basketball pitch.

“I put the audience in the four corners and made an Arabic tent. The actors were in the middle. At this time, I liked Grotowski, but I didn’t follow everything he recommended. What he said was that we needed a special audience of no more than 10 to 15 people. I liked ‘poor theatre’ but I needed the biggest audience I could attract.” Daood also changed the play so that it held echoes of modern-day Iraq.

“I changed the ending and didn’t put any hope in the play. Herostratus killed everybody. It was the Greek myth, but it was also changed so that it was also about Baghdad’s future. I sent the message that ‘Saddam will kill and burn everything in Iraq’.”

Daood’s doctorate, completed in St Petersburg and published under the title The Theatre of Iraq, combined selected elements of ‘poor theatre’ with the Iraqi ritual of Tayzi’eh. This is the tragic re-enactment of the two figures in Shia Islamic history, namely Ali, who is believed to be the first divinely sanctioned Imam or the successor of Prophet Muhammad, and also Hussein. The seminal event in Shia history is the martyrdom of Ali’s son Hussein at the Battle of Karbala in 680 CE. Hussein came to symbolise resistance to tyranny, and every year Shia Muslims gather to symbolically act out the battle in the ritual known as Tayzi’eh.

“This tradition is important in the Arab theatre world. I hear some people talking about Arabs not having a tradition in theatre and having to import it from Europe, but I thought we had a very strong tradition. I said in my PhD that we didn’t need to go to Aristotle or even to Grotowski or Peter Brook. We needed to talk about ‘our’ theatre, the theatre based on ancient ritual.”

As well as finding a foundational basis in the Arab performance tradition, his time in Russia was also seminal to his development as a stage director, he says. “Russia taught me many things about drama — how to be an actor and a director. It refined my work aesthetically on stage.”

He worked with numerous playwrights and observed different styles, one of the most important of which was Lev Dodin, whose work and practice he followed keenly.

“In my first year there, I couldn’t understand the Russian language, but when I saw Dodin’s productions, some of which were seven hours long, I understood everything. Sometimes you go to the theatre and you need surtitles to understand the play, but here the actors explained everything to you, because they were talking the language of drama. You ‘felt’ what was happening on stage.”

His return to Baghdad’s theatre scene has been double-edged in its rewards and frustrations. While he feels returned to his first, foundational culture, he feels it has suffered from arrested artistic development. “Saddam destroyed the middle-class, neutered theatre and wiped out culture. From 1985 until Saddam left, theatre was mainly propaganda — comedies without an edge. Because of the curfews between 2004 to 2008, we had to show our theatre performances at 12pm. As well as this, the audience was asking for bad theatre because they had grown up on TV serials of family dramas.”

Baghdad is Here, his first production with the Iraqi Theatre Company, offered a steep learning curve in some of the constraints of theatrical practice in a war-torn country. The subject matter was a typical challenge to the status quo, discussing the recent past of a dictator’s legacy. The artistic integrity of the production could not always be maintained due to the consequences of real-world conflict. “I chose a bad time for rehearsals; I was also busy with another production and I didn’t have time to complete this show. It taught me how to work in Baghdad, how to choose my actors, how to choose the best time and place to rehearse. I learned, or re-learned, how to direct in Iraq.”



Neuerscheinungen im Verlag

Cover Recherchen 167
Cover Rampe vol.2
Cover B. K. Tragelehn
Charly Hübner Buch backstage
Cover XYZ Jahrbuch 2023
Recherchen 162 "WAR SCHÖN. KANN WEG …"
"Scène 23"
"Zwischen Zwingli und Zukunft"
Recherchen 165 "#CoronaTheater"
"Die Passion hinter dem Spiel"
Arbeitsbuch 31 "Circus in flux"
"Passion Play Oberammergau 2022"