[The following contains spoilers.]
“Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” Nine days after 9/11, when President Bush uttered this threat, most people would have automatically sided with America. After the 2003 invasion of Iraq, however, the dichotomy was no longer adequate. Henry Naylor’s new play “The Collector,” which has just opened at the Gilded Balloon, portrays two invaders who are “with” America but not with the Americans, or with the ideals and not the application. They are moderate, neutral figures, who want to win Iraq but without too much of a fight. Inevitably sidelined, they end up abdicating all responsibility.
“The Collector” is advertised as “political satire” and “a ghost story,” but it is neither really. It is mildly in danger of appealing to the wrong audiences. Whilst it begins with an anecdote about a faceless apparition, possibly a cameo by Slender Man, this one ghost in fact makes “The Collector” as much of a ghost story as Julius Caesar. The ghost becomes human as we learn the circumstances in which the human Nazeer became the ghost; and the story thereby matures steeply, but not necessarily into satire. It is mostly just a plain melodrama, at times woven from clever ironies, but often straightforwardly earnest.
There is a hot seat planted on the stage, with three characters hopping on and off, never settling, to relate snatches of their stories. We meet Captain Kaspowich (William Reay) and Sergeant Foster (Lesley Harcourt), who work at the American military prison which recruits Nazeer as a translator; and the girlfriend (Ritu Arya) who he has left at home to be eaten alive by the encroaching Islamist monster. The officers have qualms about the brutality which goes on under their noses. They are outraged when the prisoners in their care are dressed as women and forced to masturbate (a la the Abu Ghraib prison scandal), but they were unfazed by the arbitrary arrests and imprisonment which had kicked off the whole show. Imprisoned in their own prison, they are just as isolated from Iraqi society as the toppled dictator whose authority they cannot emulate.
In one superb joke, Foster describes the behaviour of an interrogator called Vale, who is so sneering, crass, and two-dimensional that he seems to let down the story. All is suddenly explained when we are told that Vale is nineteen. Unfortunately, nobody else is really running the prison and the more adult characters just look on helplessly.
I do not know how realistic the “The Collector” is, but it gives a persuasive impression of authenticity and solid research. The acting is pacy and the play unsparingly details the unjust treatment of Coalition military translators. It is a shame, therefore, that it is overly eager to extrapolate from the specific political climate after Saddam’s downfall, to promote a dreary, Heart-of-Darkness message about the barbarity in all of us. You can hear the djinns groan across the desert when Foster locates the Stanford Prison experiment within easy reach. The “ghost story” is put to symbolic use here, in the on-stage art, with the hooded figure from the “Resign, Rumsfeld” Economist cover reflecting the bedsheet spookiness of Casper the Friendly Ghost (a name possibly echoed in that of Captain Kaspowich). Yet dedicating this play to human darkness leads its satire to become just as morally effective as its characters’ outrage.