About 3000 Bahrainis defied a government ban to watch the
show late on Thursday on a wooden stage hastily erected on a dirt lot in a poor Shia neighbourhood of the capital Manama. 

The organisers, the leading Shia opposition group Al-Wifaq Islamic Society, had tried to hold it on Tuesday but were stopped by the authorities. 

"We expected only 400 people, but close to 3000 have turned up. They are not here for the show. They want to challenge the government," Adil al-Abbasi, a Wifaq activist, told Reuters. 

Media control

Although Bahrain has opened up in recent years, public shows
critical of the monarchy are not allowed. King Hamad bin Isa
Al Khalifa has near absolute powers and remains above rebuke. 

The government controls the media, but opposition groups
like Wifaq are not persecuted as they used to be, before the
king introduced political reforms after coming to power in 1999. 

"Under the constitution, we have a right to freedom of expression. We have to protect our limited space of freedom"

Adil al-Abbasi,
an activist

The crowd, seated on folding chairs and separated by gender, repeatedly erupted in applause and laughter as the all-male cast took a stab at the country's top leaders. 

One scene mocked the appointed parliament wasting time with a long poem praising a royal figure who walks in with his wife in ceremonial Arab garb and is followed by a long escort. 

The actors were careful not to mention people by name, but
it was clear to the audience they were taking aim at top members of the Al Khalifa royal family. 

Sensitive issues

The play also tackled other sensitive issues like rising unemployment and alleged corruption in Bahrain, a regional finance hub and the headquarters of the US Navy's Fifth Fleet. 

Information Minister Nabil Yaqub al-Hamer told newspapers on Friday the show was illegal and vowed to take legal action against Al-Wifaq. He did not elaborate. 

But the opposition group was defiant. "Under the constitution, we have a right to freedom of expression. We have to protect our limited space of freedom," Abbasi said.