Review – The Collector at Arcola Theatre

inter arma enim silent leges

Three stools, three actors. Henry Naylor’s play tells a simple story in the most complex circumstances: Nassir, spoken of but never seen, is an Iraqi who becomes a translator for the US army.

Zoya (fiancée of Nassir) begins the narration of this

“Arabian nightmare”

in rhyming couplets. Nassir doesn’t mind ‘Western values’. At least, he listens to American hip hop.

Foster is an army interrogator. She seems decent. But she’s surrounded by moronic zealots who are just

“doing this to blow shit up”

Brutish bloodlust motivates some. Blind patriotism motivates others.

There was absolute horror under Saddam. Are the Americans better? Saddam is toppled, ‘mission accomplished’. One line says

“These were the good times”

Troops have just invaded, purpose in mind. Even the prisons are nice. Captain Kasprowicz takes pride in turning Saddam’s human abattoir, Mazrat Gaol, into a model American prison. After all, these are

“Not prisoners of war, but security detainees”

But as it all drags on rules become less clear. War breeds a tangled bureacracy and many different versions of the rulebook exist: some say it’s ok to set dogs on prisoners. Some forbid it. The Geneva Convention doesn’t apply, after all, these are

“Not prisoners of war, but security detainees”

There is conflict within the ranks. Extremist elements, like Valet (mentioned but never seen), are keen to abuse detainees. They mention the Stanford Prison experiment: stopped after 6 days.

Nassir’s life is in danger, he’s a Western sympathiser. Some officious bastard can’t fast track Nassir’s asylum application, even when Kasprowicz shouts

“He’s put his life on the line for America”

No frills, just thoughtful, angry storytelling from Henry Naylor. No one gets a happy ending.

William Reay’s Kasprowicz has a George W drawl. He captures all the familiar intonations of familiar words from the War On Terror era: ‘detainee, Al Qaeda, Amuhrica, terrrrism,’ stressing the ‘I’ in ‘I-raq’.

Zoya (Ritu Arya) squirms and fidgets as she describes US soldiers beating a man to death.

“He stamped on his face”

Valet, never seen but often talked about, takes great pleasure in abusing prisoners. But when a friend of his dies, Kasprowicz says, he’s

“No longer the soldier, now the 19 year old boy”

Closing couplets expose the big theme of the play. It hasn’t been hard to work it out, but Zoya reinforces that

“The real foe is deep in the heart of man. Our brutality”

That brutality forced Nassir to change sides, it got him killed. That brutality is not confined to an Iraqi prison cell 11 years ago. It persists in the bloody stains on the hands of those who waged, who wage this war.

“After the war’s over”

Foster says at one point. It’s strange to think this optimism ever existed. What did we want? A new Armistice Day? The Collector is set in 2003, but that was over a decade ago and the play still seems grimly topical. This war will never really be over.

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