Review by Harry Bower
The line between self-indulgent and genius is a pretty thin one to toe. This is more so the case when you rely on the audience picking up on some heavy themes and complex thinking, and all you have to aid you is some basic set, a projector screen, and some lights. In the basement of the Arcola Theatre in Dalston, though, award-winning playwright Henry Naylor toes that line almost flawlessly in this latest edition of his one-man documentary play, Afghanistan is Not Funny.
Naylor’s sell-out Edinburgh Fringe show Finding Bin Laden ran in 2002 and is the muse for Afghanistan is Not Funny, an engaging and at times captivating retelling of his own experiences in Afghanistan itself, having travelled there in research for the fringe.
The landscape in Afghanistan has dramatically changed since 2002, and since Naylor’s visit. The Taliban have retaken control of Kabul the huge flaws in the decision making of the politics behind war in Middle East are largely accepted. It is against this backdrop that Naylor takes his audience on the journey back in time.
The play is built around a series of frantic flashbacks, first explaining the reason for the visit, then detailing each day as the tourist group of Naylor, his photographer Sam Maynard, and their guide undertake a sort of warzone open top bus tour, sans bus. The overarching narrative is framed by some call-back interactions between the writer and their therapist which is an interesting if not altogether innovative mechanic. Each flashback tells of a different experience, either visiting war-ruined palaces, being abducted by the Mujahideen, driving at 90mph over a mine-laden road, or visiting a refugee camp. All of these experiences were designed to validate a play Naylor had already written. Naturally they did the opposite and serve as the real reason for Finding Bin Laden’s successful Fringe run.
The storytelling in this show is one of a kind and there were times I could not take my eyes off the action. By action, I actually mean the words coming out of Naylor’s mouth. It’s a strange thing to try to describe, but I’m not sure I’ve ever sat and listened to 70 minutes of one man’s voice and been as consistently interested and engaged in everything he’s saying, as I was here. Not a word is wasted. Everything has meaning and every adjective conjures up vivid and often uncomfortably violent images in the mind. There is a nuance and proficiency in the writing that smacks of experience and authority. The descriptive terms used are both inventive but also not circumspect; there are some unusual and inventive turns of phrase in the book which allow plenty of room for imagination on the audience’s part.
If imagination is not your strong suit, this play has you covered. The stage-action is accompanied by some of the most powerful photography I have ever seen used in a play. Not out of place in an exhibition let alone a piece of fringe theatre, this is the work of renowned photographer, producer and director Sam Maynard, who accompanied Naylor on his original trip to the Middle East.
As each of the flashbacks develops we see a lecture-like slide show of images accompanying the words, each image as thought-provoking and emotive as the last, each used to great effect to aid the audience in attempting to understand what it must have been like walking around a warzone.
The direction in the piece by Martha Lott and Darren Lee Cole is more than functional. With relatively static staging and only a few opportunities to engage the audience in different ways to simply moving from one spot to another, the pair have done an admirable job to avoid everything feeling stale and two dimensional. Stillness is used effectively as is silence, eye contact, and the variation of movement speed and interaction with the basic set. The lighting in the piece is designed by Iain Pearson and does a good job of matching the vibe of each flashback or cutaway; blue for anxiety-filled sessions with the therapist, warmer colours representing warmer climates or the interior of a pub. There is nothing revolutionary here but that is appropriate for the tone and theatre space.
As the show progresses past its midway point the audience’s understanding of why exactly it is that Henry Naylor and his creative team have produced this fascinating play becomes more clear.
It is not just a form of therapy in itself for its originator, nor is it a particularly impressive social commentary, nor a revolutionary critique of the West’s journalism. It’s not even a great example of how to share photography. It is part all of these things, but mostly it is a regularly impressive, always emotive, and invitingly intimate exploration of our personal capacity for empathy, and a reminder of our collective inability to retain a sense of perspective.
In a deeply personal and reflective manner, Naylor invites the audience to pause for thought while he runs around the stage with a nervous but excitable energy, whipping up anecdotes and regaling us with impressions of those close to him during that time. During the hour and a bit we are sat there engulfed by this storytelling maestro at work, we are never too far away from drawing parallels about our own lived experiences. This is brought to a head at the end of the show when the audience is left to ponder a particularly stark image which is still etched into my mind. Without spoiling it for you, I’ll just say that as Naylor exited the stage and the lights faded to black, there was an unmoved and pertinent silence. That silence was not artificial.
At its core Afghanistan is Not Funny is a fantastic piece of theatre delivered in a charming, often humorous and highly personal way. It toes the line between self-indulgent and exploitative, and genius – and despite some stumbles along the way it comes out very clearly on the right side. In a time at which there is a war once again raging in Europe and people are more divided than ever, this play is a reminder that empathy and emotional intelligence are both valuable and underappreciated qualities. It is timely and impactful.
When the applause eventually began after that silence it was from an audience whom Naylor will hope are somewhat different in mindset to the audience that entered. I know I certainly am.
Afghanistan is Not Funny plays at the Arcola Theatre in Dalston until 11 March 2023. For more information or to buy tickets visit: https://www.arcolatheatre.com/whats-on/afghanistan-is-not-funny/
Photos by Steve Ullathorne