The conclusion to The Collector by Henry Naylor is left uncomfortably open. There’s no happy ending, no chance of redemption. Tackling head on the American occupation of Iraq in 2003, Naylor’s script takes the form of interconnected monologues and hones in on the individuals caught in the political upheaval. The small ensemble has an instantly humanising effect. An individual can possess more emotional impact than a crowd, and by presenting three main focal points Naylor forces the audience to acknowledge the American troops and Iraqi residents instead of distancing ourselves.
The dominant three voices offered are those of Officer Kasprowicz (William Reay) who is put in command at Mazrat prison, interrogator Foster (Olivia Beardsley) whose tactics are derided by her peers, and the young Iraqi, Zoya (Anna Riding). These worlds are bridged by Zoya’s pro-Western fiancé Nassir. Starting out as a wannabe rapper who catches Zoya’s eye, his American-influenced speech earns him a position as interpreter for the US forces and brings him into the heart of events in Mazrat. He’s a contradiction, a non-rebellious Iraqi, and this alienates him from both sides as the play progresses. His liminal status as protagonist is enhanced by the fact that Nassir is never embodied on stage. Rather, we see sweet-natured Nassir through Zoya and a helpful presence from Foster’s point of view. Riding and Beardsley as the main conjurors of Nassir do a brilliant job of fleshing out such an important character as he becomes an integral part of the narrative.
It’s interesting how Naylor chooses not to introduce any British presence in The Collector. This decision places the focus more on American ideals of hope rather than the Blairite politics which might distract from the play’s main theme of humanity versus violence. Interestingly, the lack of a British voice when the audience is mainly UK-based doesn’t desensitise the action at hand. Sure, we may be able to distance ourselves from the American brutality but the sympathetic way Reay views Kasprowicz still implicates us in the violence at hand when it does occur. America is heralded as the beacon of hope by Nassir and Zoya, in stark contrast to Sadam Hussein’s rule. To later find soldiers using the same straps on chairs in Mazrat as Hussein once ordered shows the murkiness of both sides’ morality.
Michael Cabot styles his direction around minimalist stage design. Borne out of a black box space when the play first appeared at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2014, the props are restricted to three stools, each lit by a single light bulb. Letting the actors create the space also allows for more concentration on the plot, and it’s fascinating to observe how no actor leaves the stage at any point. Having Zoya sat in darkness, her gaze averted, whilst Reay or Beardsley is talking demonstrates the heavy impact of the American occupation on the Iraqi people. Zoya is the first character to speak in the performance and Riding’s stillness and ability to blend into the background foreshadows her subjugation at the end of the play, when Zoya is forced to seek shelter with the very gangs she fears. The stage is a stiflingly small space, especially once the conflict begins to escalate – it’s easy to see how the riot at Mazrat ripples out to affect Zoya’s homelife.
There’s no soundscape, an artistic decision which is impossible to miss. Explosion and gunfire is what we expect to hear from a warzone, and what we’re left with is an uncomfortable silence. We learn from Nassir that it’s not in the Iraqi practice to yell and this lack of noise almost feels like a mark of respect. The silence also feeds on the imagination and fear of the audience – the bomb is only as loud and destructive as the audience imagines it to be.
Andy Grange’s lighting is similarly minimal, a flickering of the bulbs coinciding with the explosion of a bomb. Choosing to turn off Zoya and Foster’s lights is a powerful move and transforms the light over Kasprowicz into an interrogatory glare as he’s forced to recount the chilling conclusion to the riot at Mazrat.
“It’s the absence,” which affects Kasprowicz most sharply when Nassir is gone. An absence is what follows The Collector throughout: the absence of Nassir or the threatening soldier Valet, an absence of the images we all associate with the events of Abu Ghraib which are so similar to those at Mazrat. The absence follows through to this lack of a quick fix happy ending. Even now, there’s no conclusion to this conflict. Since its debut, The Collector has become part of a trilogy. The most recent play concerns itself with the so-called Islamic State and militant extremism. Thus the cycle of brutality continues and The Collector will not let us forget it.