‘Dear Shamima, fuck off.’
Shamima, in this case, being the 15-year-old British “jihadi bride” Shamima Begum who left England in 2015 along with two other female classmates to go to Syria. Famously discovered in a Syrian refugee camp in early 2019, Begum requested that she be returned to Britain. Cue public outrage and a Home Secretary who, rather than welcoming her home, instead recommended that she be stripped of her citizenship and left stateless.
In Henry Naylor’s new play The Nights, the person responsible for uttering this pithy statement is a young female journalist, Carter (Caitlin Thorburn). Carter works for an unnamed British tabloid and pitches her editor a follow-up story to the initial revelations around Begum’s request: ‘Dear Shamima, fuck off.’ Naylor clearly loves this line. Carter says it again and again over the course of the hour. It’s catchy the first time, worn thin by the third and downright tedious by the eighth. A sign—or a symptom, perhaps—that this is not Naylor’s finest work.
Assignment secured, Carter attempts to scout out a comment on Begum from two British soldiers charged with war crimes in Iraq—who better to tell Shamima to fuck off than our heroic boys, right? This is where things start to fall apart. Carter seeks out Captain Kane, an “antiques dealer” selling military memorabilia, and one of the soldiers charged with war crimes from manning an Abu-Ghriab-style prison. But of all the soldiers Carter could seek out for comment, what journalist in their right mind would seek out one who had been tried for war crimes?
There’s a degree of intellectual laziness in a plot device that pits Carter’s zealous enthusiasm for Western liberal values—further fired by her fury over the beheading of friend and mentor James Foley—against Kane, defender-turned-abuser-turned-who knows what of such values. Although Kane eventually states that the war on terror isn’t a simple matter of West versus East or Christian versus Islam, but rather a war between humanity and inhumanity, it’s not entirely clear where he views himself on that spectrum. By extension, it’s not really clear what Naylor thinks of his own characters and this is but one of the play’s many problems.
With The Nights, one has a strong sense that Naylor has been more preoccupied with poking holes at the public fury surrounding the Shamima Begum case than in sifting through his own thoughts on the matter. A number of interesting topics are introduced—not least the complex, challenging question of what circumstances, if any, warrant a person being stripped of their citizenship—and then dropped before anything of substance has been said about them. Here, Naylor seems, like his heroine Carter, sadly more preoccupied with catchy soundbites than with a good story.
The Nights is on at Gilded Balloon at 4.15pm until 26th August, as part of the 2019 Edinburgh fringe