TOP satire writer Henry Naylor – a leading member of ITV’s Spitting Image team – went to Afghanistan to research a hard-hitting comedy but came back a changed man to write his first serious drama – and now the play is set to come to Greenwich Theatre for five days this month (January 17-21).
The Collector, set in Mazrat Prison in Iraq, is a dark and challenging story about ordinary people debased by the situation in the Middle East.
“The play is less about the politics and more about the effects of global events on ordinary people,” said Henry, who turned 50 this year. “And because I wanted ordinary people telling the story in their own way, I don’t have the hero and villain on stage at the same time.”
“The man running the prison wants to bring the West’s liberal values to Iraq but is gradually corrupted by the situation and allows guards in the camp to behave appallingly. He’s also helpless in face of the CIA and other agencies. The characters start as decent people trying to do their best but then get corrupted, and I think part of the appeal to audiences so far is people wondering, what would I do in that situation?”
Henry, from Barnsley, readily concedes to being obsessed by the Middle East and has since written what’s become a trilogy on the subject with Echoes and Angel joining international tours in 2017, the latter already planned as a film he’s scripting.
The spark that transformed Henry’s writing came in 2001 during the reporting of the war in Afghanistan. He was researching a satire programme for the BBC and it dawned on him that TV news reports never showed any dead bodies.
“I met him after the invasion ended and he helped me organize a 10-day trip to Afghanistan. He lined me up with a surgeon who took me around Kabul as his second job because he was so poorly paid. It was a life-changing experience for me, going round the refugee camps and to places like the surgery where about 80 people a week had prosthetic limbs fitted. There were an extraordinary number of landmines, then and now.”
“Civilian airliners at the airport had been blown up by the Americans to prevent the Taliban turning them into bombers. The whole country was absolutely levelled and seeing everything first hand put the war into focus for me. It’s very easy to sit behind your desk at home and say the world is a terrible place, and it’s easy to be dismissive about the news as it moves so quickly. But for me, going there and actually experiencing this story completely changed my life.”
Henry believes The Collector has become even more relevant since the election of Donald Trump. “One of the play’s messages,” he said, “is about how the West needs America to behave as the land of justice and freedom of speech, and there’s a danger those values are going to be lost.”
“It’s not good enough for the Americans to say there were a few bad apples. You can’t sweep it under the carpet; you’ve got to deal with it. Most Americans I know are great but as a country they’ve got to stay true to their ideals.”
“We’ve had a lot of Q&As after performances of The Collector and I know it’s quite provocative and gets people thinking. But I’ve been surprised how little people know about what went on. The stories have not really been covered and a very patchy picture has emerged.”
James Haddrell, Greenwich Theatre’s Artistic and Executive director, saw The Collector in Edinburgh when it won the prestigious Scotsman Fringe First Award. “I was so keen to bring the show to Greenwich that I worked with producer Kathryn Barker to bring together the original touring cast for a week at Greenwich. I hope that’s an endorsement of how important I think this play is.”
The Collector – Tuesday to Saturday, January 17-21, 8pm (Sat mat 2.30pm). For more details and ticket prices go to www.greenwichtheatre.org.uk or call the box office on 020 8858 7755.