Playwright and British comedy writer, Henry Naylor (Spitting Image, Finding Bin Laden), has a career cramped with Edinburgh Fringe triumph thanks to politically-motivated plays such as Hunting Diana, which is centred around conspiracy theories relating to Princess Diana’s death. The Collector—part of his Arabian Nightmares trilogy—is no different; Naylor won the Fringe First award and is now in the middle of a three-month tour of the play around the UK. Set in Mazrat Prison during the Iraq War, the play explores Nassir; a translator for the US interrogation team who is struggling to deal with the war. The Collector is a profound tale with elements of the comedy Naylor is renowned for.
Nassir’s story is narrated through three characters: Foster (Olivia Beardsley), a US interrogator, Kasprowicz (William Reay), a captain at the prison, and Zoya (Anna Riding), Nassir’s fiancée. Nassir does not appear in the play, neither do many essential characters which we imagine ourselves and construct a relationship with them. Nassir was a comical, compassionate young man who is pro-America and talks of the liberal values the US can bring to Iraq. His passion is highlighted through his love of hip-hop, which is the punchline for most of the humour—“if you gave Nassir a dollar, he would come back with 50 Cent”, which briefly drives us away from the politics and the dark substance within the narrative. Nassir volunteers to help the Americans by interpreting Iraqi prisoners who are being interrogated, but this is not trouble-free job; his own safety becomes threatened, which brings into question the treatment of Iraqi citizens and tactics used by the US.
Foster, a female interrogator, is reminiscent of Jessica Chastain as Maya in Zero Dark Thirty: a tough but emotionally vulnerable character who doesn’t tolerate soldiers abusing prisoners. Violence is a last solution for her—just like Nassir—both believing that it achieves nothing, and she builds a strong bond between him. Foster is vital in the audience understanding Nassir’s own vulnerability and reveals his true character. Olivia Beardsley’s portrayal of Foster demonstrates the strong-willed performance more female characters, in positions such as Foster, should be conveying in theatre. Her weakness is her emotions, but is essential to the audience understanding both sides of the debate and Nassir’s character, where his true-colours shine given the situation.
Naylor’s strength is being critical of both the US and Iraq: no one is right. Mazrat Prison is at the centre of scandals and danger, with gritty descriptions of interrogation and repulsive accounts by soldiers, but we never see anything. The stage features three stools, three lightbulbs and three characters—Naylor’s language alone builds suspense and vivid imagery. The audience is encouraged to question the war, interrogation, the decision-making of soldiers; the play surrounds many questions but doesn’t necessarily answer them—that is a job for the audience. After many of the shows, Q & A sessions with the cast are full of lively debate and questions about Iraq. In The Collector, an ideology is not forced upon us; we create the debate ourselves.
Naylor’s first part of the Arabian Nightmare Trilogy is exactly what you expect from him: politics, satire, laugh-out-loud humour. It is evident why he is so successful at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival; The Collector is more than just about Nassir’s story, it is about the questions which thrive from Naylor’s work and the lively debates spawned from his plays, feeding upon a national interest of the Iraq War. The Collector is not only a story, it is an experience full of questions and no answers.