Fiona Leckerman meets James Bond author Anthony Horowitz, who’s also penned new stage comedy, Dinner With Saddam

Menier Chocolate Factory

The cast of Dinner With Saddam, including Sanjeev Bhaskar, right

What would happen if you heard a knock at your door – and it was Saddam Hussein inviting himself over for dinner? This is the unlikely yet true premise of Anthony Horowitz’s new play Dinner With Saddam, which makes its world premiere at the Menier Chocolate Factory tonight.

Author, playwright and recipient of an OBE for services to literature, Horowitz has turned a real, reported event into a two-act play, staring acclaimed playwright and actor Steven Berkoff as Saddam Hussein, alongside comedian Sanjeev Bhaskar.

Horowitz, who also sees the release of his latest James Bond novel, Trigger Mortis this month, speaks of his excitement at seeing the curtains rise on Dinner with Saddam, reflecting that writing a play “is the most challenging form of writing that I have done, but it’s a play I had to write. The Iraq war is the single defining event of my lifetime.”

The storyline was conceived after Horowitz read a newspaper article reporting that the Iraqi dictator had a habit of dropping in to civilian homes unannounced during the Gulf War to hide from the American missiles that were falling on Baghdad in 2003 “and to show solidarity with the people”.

Anthony Horowitz,

Anthony Horowitz,

From that moment, Horowitz – who made his name penning children’s spy novel series Alex Rider and was the creative brains behind television drama, Foyles War – knew he had a comedy. Taking him three months to write, Horowitz, who has also penned two Sherlock Holmes novels, reveals he initially had fears for the project. “I was nervous because this is not my experience,” he says. “What right did I have to try to understand what these people went through and then bring them back to life?

The war raises many emotions, those of anger, bewilderment and dismay. There is also sadness for the many lives that were lost. We are bored of the subject now and although I don’t want to stand on my soapbox, these issues have become modern clichés and have lost their power to offend.”

However, using “comedy and farce as weapons,” Horowitz hopes the audience will laugh at the humour concerning a serious subject.

The author-turned-playwright adds that casting Berkoff in the lead role adds a certain gravitas to his work. “I’m totally thrilled he has agreed to do the play. The fact that he has, in itself, is some sort of validation,” he explains.

Influenced by Molière, a French 17th century comedy playwright, and Noises Off writer Michael Frayn, Horowitz has injected his work with farce and chaos, including a loud Iraqi family and a wayward daughter – who is having an affair with the plumber.

Born in London and raised traditionally Jewish, Horowitz says the producers were aware of his background, “but the Middle East is one large cauldron we are all part of. I felt closeness to the characters, but all the situations and conditions in the Middle East and Israel are incredibly complex and the first mistake to make in the West is to believe there are answers.”

He assures: “I do not pretend to be an expert on Middle Eastern politics. I did a great deal of research and spoke to people who were in Baghdad. I’m not an anti-Western writer. When you arrive at the mess of the Gulf War, all sorts of external forces were responsible.” What does Horowitz, who has been writing stories since he was 10, most want the audience to glean from the play? “I hope they enjoy it, laugh and come away with some idea of the totality of the Iraq invasion and the war. I hope I can remind people that we bombed hundreds of missiles on a civilian city and that sometimes we overlook this simple truth.”

• Dinner with Saddam runs until 14 November at the Menier Chocolate Factory. Details: www. menierchocolate factory.com