Henry Naylor, the writer and co-director of this piece, is best known for his comedy work, having written for Spitting Image as well as prolific comedians like Alistair McGowan, Lenny Henry, Rory Bremner and more. The Collector is his first straight play, set in 2003 occupied Iraq.
A background in comedy may seem counterintuitive for such a serious subject matter, but here it works in Naylor’s favour. The hour long show begins with a poetic introduction that outlines various Middle Eastern stereotypes with comic intent. From there, the onstage characters aren’t afraid to laugh or crack a smile, ensuring that above all they remain touchingly human and compassionate. The characters may be fictional, but their situations are very real. As the narrative becomes graver, the closing poem is all the more poignant.
Nassir, the play’s protagonist, is a pro-Western translator working in Mazrat Gaol, one of Saddam’s most notorious torture houses now under American occupancy. Except life isn’t the American dream he thought it might be – instead the war brings only corruption, torture and a gross breach of human rights. Caught between his home culture and his desire for freedom, he is left with nobody and is forced into misplaced loyalty in order to save his family, a decision that can only end in tragedy. Through this narrative Naylor mocks interrogation techniques and the disgustingly sadistic treatment of prisoners.
However, Nassir is not present onstage. Instead, his story is told through the monologues of three characters – his wife (Rotu Arya) and two American soldiers (Wililam Reay and Lesley Harcourt). Gradually we piece together his story through the domino effect from one narrator to the next. One character describes good translation as understanding the soul, yet Nassir’s plight is literally mistranslated in front of us by others. His lack of literal voice only highlights the appalling nature of this harrowing tale, like a ghost that haunts the stage.
The play crams a hell of a lot into its one hour running time, but most prominent of all are the convincing performances from the three actors that convey such deeply moving individual stories. Harcourt’s Foster, the interrogator, is a woman caught in a male-dominant world, her psychological methods seen as weak in the face of masculine brutality; Reay’s Captain Kasprowicz clearly has a heart, but the conflict clouds his judgement and turns him into a monster. As Nassir’s wife Zoya, Arya’s emotive delivery is heartbreaking: from a bubbly young woman to a broken shadow of her former self, stripped of her identity.
As such, The Collector is a play of horrific human tragedy, beyond the politics of war. Fringe theatre isn’t just about performing on a budget, it gives an opportunity to present new, concise and thought-provoking works. Few are as stirring as this.
Watch: The Collector runs at the Arcola Theatre until 22nd November.