As elsewhere in the Middle East, local folkloric theatre forms existed in many parts of Iraq in various forms, including puppet theatre, travelling troupes performing commedia dell’arte, folkloric dance, and travelling comedians.
At the same time, in Shiite communities theatre always had been an integral part of life on a completely different level, the spiritual. The traditional Shiite Ashura passion play, commemorating the death of Imam Husayn in the battle of Karbala (680 CE), is performed throughout Iraq during the month of Muharram.
What might be called ‘modern’ art theatre was imported into Iraq during the British Mandate. This consisted of comedy theatre, cabaret, and musicals, as well as modern non-commercial artistic theatre. Every kind of repertoire was performed, from ancient Greek drama to contemporary Western and Eastern European, American, and Arab plays.
Many actors, dramatists, directors, and playwrights felt forced to flee the country during the Saddam Hussein era. Director and playwright Jawad al-Asadi (b. 1947), for instance, founded the Babel Theatre in Beirut, which produces a steady flow of serious plays, including some of his own. One of his many impressive pieces is The Iraqi Theatre of Blood (2007).
Some theatre companies remained active after the change of regime. In 2005 a courageous political satire performed by the same people who formed the Iraqi National Theatre again won high acclaim at the Cairo Experimental Theatre Festival, in 2005. Some new companies have been founded, though it has been on a modest scale, because the situation in Baghdad is not welcoming for theatre, music, or dance performance.
Muhannad Rasheed (b. 1985) was forced to flee Iraq in 2005, with other members of his dance group, by the escalating hatred of artists exhibited by various fundamental religious groups in the country. The group is successfully touring Europe and the Middle East.
In 2010 Rasheed won the Dutch Dance Days Promising Choreographer Award and the Swan Award for Best Production for his work Mourning with the International Dance Theatre of The Netherlands.
Mokhallad Rasem (b. 1981) worked as a director with the National Theatre of Baghdad but in recent years has been living and working in Belgium. His first major piece in Belgium, Iraqi Ghosts, premiered in 2010 and has since then been performed world-wide.
This grim comedy treats political change, constant fear, and day-to-day horrors, while ridiculing Western misconceptions about life in Iraq.
There is an expanding theatre life in the relatively calm northern, Kurdish-dominated provinces.
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