Ahead of the visit of Henry Naylor’s play The Collector this November to the Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds he took a few moments out of his day to answer some questions about the show…
What can you tell us about The Collector?
The Collector is a story about a group of guards who are running a prison out in post-war Iraq. They begin with very high-minded principles, hoping to bring liberalism to Iraq. Gradually, by responding to the insurgency, they become more and more like the people they came to replace. It’s heavily researched and based on the experiences of many real prison guards including, but certainly not limited to, some of the people who worked at Abu Ghraib.
You’re best known for your work as a political satirist and writer for such shows as Spitting Image, Headcases, Dead Ringers and Alistair McGowan’s Big Impression. In the last three years, you’ve written three plays about the conflicts in the Middle East. What led you to focus on the violence in that region?
It all started when I was researching a programme I was doing for the BBC in 2001. I was writing for a radio show about the same time the war was on in Afghanistan. Obviously it’s hard to make that subject funny so I was watching the media intensely for any angles that I could use to write jokes. I was watching every news report and it dawned on me that they never showed any dead bodies. There was a war being committed in the country’s name but we were being shielded from the consequences of it. I looked into it and found that the BBC had this taste and decency policy not to show any of the victims of the war. Supposedly it was out of respect to the dead but I thought that it was indecent. I felt that it was disregarding the horrors of the war. It felt very immoral, like they were sanitizing the truth.
This idea that journalists have to sanitize the truth for public consumption gave me the idea for a comedy play called Finding Bin Laden. While I was working on that, there was this extraordinary incident on TV that involved a BBC journalist, called William Reid, who was reporting from Kabul just before the Northern Alliance swept into the city. He was saying â€œthe forces are getting close. I don’t know if you can hear outside but there’re a lot of explosions going offâ€¦and ohâ€¦that was really quite closeâ€. Then – live on air – he was blown off his feet. Already it was the most confronting thing I’d ever seen on television. Then what happened was my old flat mate ran in front of the camera yelling â€œJesus Christâ€. I was completely bewildered. It turned out my old flat mate, who I’d lost touch with, had become a cameraman for the BBC and he was out there reporting on the war.
I got in touch with him after the invasion ended and told him about what I was writing. I said that I wanted to get my facts straight and get past the media’s representation of events. So he helped me organize things and I went out and spent 10 days in Afghanistan. It completely changed my life. Up until that point I had been a satirical writer sat at my desk at home sneering about events on the news. Actually living in a news event first hand transformed my writing. We went round refugee camps, saw landmine victims and got a real idea of the damage the war had done. From that moment I’ve been obsessed with the conflict in the Middle East. Every time something happens in the news I’m following it. I take cuttings out of the papers and keep them in a great big stack. It’s become the thing that I write about and it’s changed how I write. I still try to make things entertaining, but without trivializing it. I want to tell people what’s going on.
And The Collector was the first play you wrote with this more serious mindset?
Yes, exactly. Although I started it still thinking I was going to write a comedy. But the more I did the more I thought that what was interesting was seeing how ordinary people became monsters. I thought I had something to say about that. I wanted to explore that corruption and the tone of what I was writing became darker than what I’d written before.
Were you nervous about how it would be received?
I was absolutely terrified. I had no idea if it was any good. Waiting for the reviews was nerve-racking. But I think it’s important to scare yourself like that. Better than to write the same thing over and over. If you have no idea how a piece is going to be received then you’re doing something right. And of course the fear of looking an idiot makes you raise your game!
Since writing The Collector, you’ve written two more plays set in the region called Echoes and Angel. All three plays won awards at the Edinburgh Festival including two Fringe Firsts and one Spirit of the Fringe. Did you ever imagine you’d have such consistent success?
You can never count on these things but it’s an enormous boost to your confidence. I kept wanting to return to the region because there’s so much more to be said. What’s going on in the Middle East at the moment is always the biggest news in the world. I don’t think nearly enough British writers are engaging with it. I’m trying to make things entertaining, interesting, and tell people what’s going on, and good reviews make it so much easier to get my work out there.
How did you feel about the Chilcot Inquiry when it was finally published?
In the end I don’t think it said anything we didn’t know already. It kind of stopped short of outright condemning Blair but reading between the lines you get the feeling that Chilcot felt Blair had quite a lot to answer for. On the positive side, I suppose it’s become a bit harder for Blair to deny as much as he denied previously. And his voice became a little shriller.
Am I right in thinking you’ve known the director, Michael Cabot, for quite a while?
Yes, in fact Michael directed Andy Parsons and myself when we were students. We were about 20 and we were such arrogant cocky sods. We thought we knew everything about comedy in those days. We were doing something for the national student theatre company at Edinburgh. The guy who ran the company said we needed a director. We weren’t keen on someone telling us what to do but when Michael turned up he was utterly charming and directed us without us even realizing he was doing it. At the end of the day I’d think â€œhow did he get me to do that thing I didn’t want to do?â€ It’s that sort of subtlety and intelligence that really brings out the best in actors in this kind of show.
Years later he came to see The Collector in Edinburgh. I asked him what he thought of it and he offered up a few ideas about how things could have been different: things I hadn’t thought about at all. So I asked him if he’d direct it if we staged it in London. He agreed and we sold out the entire run at the Arcola. He’s such an experienced theatre director, magnificent really, so I handed it over to him. It’s quite exciting really seeing a piece of my work on stage where I haven’t chosen the actors or shaped the performances. It’s such an intimate experience and I’ve really enjoyed watching this talented cast work with the piece.
The Collector comes to Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds Tuesday 15 November. To book tickets click HERE