Curtain rises on new dawn for Iraqi theatre

As the clock strikes eight, the curtain is raised at the Iraqi National Theatre in what actors hope is a return to regular night-time performances, six and a half years after the US invasion.

The name of the production, He Who Seeks Sweet Things Must Also Endure Bitterness, reminds the hundreds of spectators of the troubles their country has been through – and why being able to stage a play is such a big deal. The actors wear white as a sign of peace.

The play is about two tribes who feud over a marriage, only to be united in love at the end. "Let's be happy, why should we alone among all the people of the world be sad," the actors sing.

A sharp drop in sectarian violence in Iraq over the past 18 months has allowed normal life to resume, tentatively; nightclubs, country clubs, restaurants and galleries are cautiously returning to business as usual.

But occasional massive suicide bomb attacks by Sunni Islamist insurgents, such as those on government buildings on 19 August and 25 October, serve to remind Iraqis that the growing security is fragile.

The National Theatre tried to launch night-time performances in 2008 with a comedy show, but they lasted for only two months. They tried again in September, as Baghdad's curfew started later and Iraqis became more willing to go out at night.

"We really missed shows like this. It reminds us of the lovely old days," said Harith Saleem, 32, a postgraduate student who attended a recent performance with his wife.

Sealed off by blast walls and with one entrance, the theatre is protected by Iraqi police, who search all visitors to the building. But security is not the only challenge. Trying to get Iraqi actors to return to their country has also proved difficult.

Many fled to neighbouring Syria to escape the violence unleashed by the 2003 invasion and the rise of religious militias which imposed draconian intolerance. "It [the play] talks about loving Iraq and returning to it," said producer Issam al-Abbasi. "In the past, of course, when there was stability in the country, there was always a big turnout. Now just being able to stage a play is an achievement."

The theatre can seat around 1,300 people and was built during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. In those days it largely featured major works by authors including Shakespeare and Chekhov. Now, the productions tend to be more homegrown.

Comedy is all the rage as Iraqis grow accustomed to making fun of their leaders and laughing at their own misfortunes, in a sharp change from the dictatorial days of Saddam Hussein.

"Before the change of regime, theatre was not bold, but now jokes are expressed freely," said one actor, Nahi Mehdi.

Inaam al-Rubaie is one of the few actors who did not leave Iraq during the dark days of sectarian slaughter. "The minder is still living inside us, but not like before. We can talk freely," she said.

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