Perhaps oddly, it was the sinister vagueness of the term ‘the collector’ that most sapped my sleep before stepping in to the Arcola. What awful things does this unnamed person collect? But in fact, the main Collector in Henry Naylor’s play is the interpreter and DJ Nassir, and it is Zoya (Ritu Arya). This gentle, sweet young Iraqi couple fell in love as a result of their mutual passion for collecting American music: Eminem and the like. Thus begins a very human portrayal of all-too-believable wrongs.
The Collector is set in 2003 in Mazrat jail, a former torture house under Saddam and now controlled by US forces who aim to make it a model prison in terms of fairness and a comparatively humane treatment of prisoners. When Nassir’s beloved music collection is eventually amplified and turned into the background (and the means) of torture, it exemplifies the way that humanity is dragged down by a desire for revenge.
‘Revenge is a kind of wild justice; which the more man’s nature runs to, the more ought law to weed it out. For as for the first wrong, it doth but offend the law; but the revenge of that wrong, putteth the law out of office.’ People most often apply this quotation to the gaudy, hare-brained pilings-up of bodies in Renaissance revenge drama. In this tautly-acted, intimate production, the bitter madness of revenge breaths in our faces, harangues our eardrums. An Iraqi suicide bomber pretends to be a prostitute and murders a US soldier. In retaliation, the soldier’s friends bring prisoners into Mazrat in trucks, torturing them until even the interrogator hitherto most despised for his cruelty is terrified.
Kasprowicz (William Reay), the officer in charge of the base, presented as a man who came to Iraq aiming to bring justice and peace to its citizens, is thrown into a rage when Sergeant Foster, whom he was in love with, is killed by prisoners. He tortures Nassir (who had been coerced into arming the prisoners), until Nassir is dead, a stark betrayal of the ideals of justice and freedom that the US explicitly stands for in this play.
Foster (Lesley Harcourt), a long standing interrogator, doesn’t believe in brutality. It is implied that she is trusted by all: both Iraqi citizens and US soldiers come to her as their first port of call on the base whenever something gets out of hand. Foster seems untouched by the desire for revenge – even against those whom she sees committing heinous crimes on either side. Though pretty het up (avowedly ‘mad as hell’) quite a lot of the time, she never lets her anger spill into self-indulgent, inhuman viciousness.
The cast is three-strong; the story of Nassir’s life and death at Mazrat is told through the voices of moderate characters: Zoya, Foster, and Kasprowicz. This way, the play avoids titillating with, or condoning, the excesses at Mazrat. All the other people involved in the story (such as the swaggering, stupidly savage interrogator Valet, and Faisal a towering ex-military man still loyal to Saddam) are adeptly ventriloquised, and occasionally held up to ridicule, by these three characters. Their deeds, as Masrat jail descends into a lawless wilderness of torture, are brought to us only as they are reported by Foster: with utter shock.
Foster mentions the Stanford Prison Experiment as she explains her aversion to brutality of any kind. Perhaps she is one of those lucky few who were found at Stanford to be immune to the lures of abuse of power. The Collector seems to intend to make wider points about the need to avoid inhumanity, pitilessness. The production begins and ends with Zoya’s doggerel, delivered with calculated earnestness. Her description of ‘Arabian nightmares’ seems in style a buffer to the more naturalistic portrayals encased within. But in content it is no buffer at all, having rather the stark power of a headline: ‘writing began here, and even drawing| And beating with hoses, and waterboarding’.