An edited version of this review was first published on Everything Theatre. The Collector, which won a Scotsman Fringe First Award at the 2014 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, was an arresting look at torture in the US-run prisons of war-torn Iraq in 2003-2004 from three different vantage points.
The Collector opens with an encounter with a ghost. Kasprowicz (William Reay), a captain in the US military, is visibly shaken, and there’s a quiver in his comfortable Southern drawl. It’s not the presence of the ghost in the Iraqi military prison that unnerves him, it’s the absence that it stands for – the facelessness, the shadows in the dark.
This spectral metaphor carries through the play, with three characters taking turns to tell the story of Nassir, a charming Iraqi interpreter who loves American music and has high hopes for a future Iraqi democracy after what he thinks will be a brief war. We know he’s wrong, of course, but his optimism is infectious – despite the fact that Nassir doesn’t have a physical presence on stage. He’s the ghost in the room, the present absence. Through the stories of his fiancee, Zoya (Anna Riding), his American colleague, Sergeant Foster (Olivia Beardsley), and his superior, Captain Kasprowicz, we get both the story of an individual with conflicted loyalties – as well as a war gone horribly wrong. Nassir may be the crucial interpreter for the American army, the pivot on which interrogations and negotiations rest, but because he isn’t present on stage, his actions and decisions must, in a sense, be interpreted by the rest. It’s a clever device, allowing us several varying but complementary points of view as the three performers piece together and translate his every move.
Dissecting the US war in Iraq is an ambitious undertaking, and playwright Henry Naylor chooses to focus on the intimate interactions between this tightly knit group of characters. We get equal insight into Nassir’s domestic life and his working life, how he must navigate his initially unquestioning loyalty to the Americans for a freedom hoped for, but also confront the eventual realisation that the American war machine and its facade of heroism is really not what it seems. Nassir is a cultural intermediary: a “compatriot” to his newfound American community but a blacklisted “collaborator” to the Iraqi insurgents; and the titular “collector” – of music, hopes and dreams – to his wife-to-be. Naylor juggles these three identities with a great deal of skill character-wise, but plot-wise he’s forced to turn to a few obvious devices to propel the story along, including a romantic tryst that feels forced and doesn’t give the emotional payoff that’s needed later on.
Actors Riding, Reay and Beardsley are a well-oiled ensemble and play off each other’s energy comfortably. Their characters speak as they would in a documentary piece, directly to the audience, and this act of confiding their hopes and fears gives the play a strong sense of intimacy. The spare set design, three incandescent light bulbs suspended over three stools, mirrors the austerity of a prison cell – or perhaps the figurative prison cell that Nassir finds himself in as his three identities become increasingly at odds with one another. In the cavernous Greenwich Theatre, however, the wider distance between the audience and the storytellers sacrifices some of the action's immediacy and edge as the actors struggle to evoke the confines of either a jail cell – or the initial refuge of a civilian home that quickly begins to feel like a prison.
As the 75-minute play speeds to a close, Naylor’s carefully crafted critique of America’s wartime atrocities changes tracks abruptly, losing its sting when it becomes a generic critique of the darkness of the human heart, and the depths to which it will descend in order to survive. There is truth in this Conradian “heart of darkness”, but I wonder if The Collector might have been more powerful still had Naylor pursued that thread right to the end. But the production remains a rare theatrical examination of torture during the war in Iraq that benefits from a documentarian’s eye and historical hindsight. This may be a play investigating torture, but it’s one that wisely chooses not to depict or glorify a single act of graphic torture on stage. The Collector is a haunting reminder of a recent past that many have been all too quick to forget.
Playwright: Henry Naylor
Director: Michael Cabot
Presented by: Kathryn Barker in association with London Classic Theatre
Box Office: 020 8858 7755
Booking Link: http://ticketing.greenwichtheatre.org.uk/single/PSDetail.aspx?psn=60689
Booking Until: 21 January 2017