The Collector, Greenwich Theatre

by guest critic Maeve Ryan

When the British army arrived in Northern Ireland, beleaguered Catholics came onto the streets offering them tea, biscuits and cake. How long did it take for the story to change to the one that we know today? In The Collector, Naseer joyfully swaps music CDs with the American soldiers who arrive into Iraq in 2003 because he hopes for democracy and change. He learnt his English by listening to American rap music and soon he becomes a valuable translator for the soldiers. The Collector documents the slow brutalization of the occupiers and the occupied through choices they make; choices that, in Henry Naylor’s play, feel inevitable.


Henry Naylor is known best for his comedy work with Andy Parsons and on Spitting Image. He wrote The Collector after a trip to the Middle East to collect material to satirise the war on Iraq. Completely changed by his journey, he came home and wrote this instead – a taut play of seventy minutes that uses three interweaving monologues to tell the story of the absent translator Naseer.

The stage contains three actors, three chairs and three lightbulbs hanging by wires. Michael Cabot’s direction is clean and compassionate, allowing the vivid images to breathe. The actors’ voices transport us to the women’s quarters of a townhouse, a jolly checkpoint, a bustling market before a bomb. The actors jump skillfully from their main roles to conjure up a multitude of characters – a cocky young prison guard, Naseer’s love, Zoya, her father and Naseer himself amongst others to create a fully three-dimensional world.

The main location for the story however, is a Saddam-era prison, Americanised by the placement of white towels and shaving foam, where Naseer witnesses the interrogation of his fellow-Iraqis. It’s impossible not to recall the real-life photographs of smiling soldiers beside humiliated, tortured detainees at Abu Gharib whilst the interrogations play out on stage, making us feel awkwardly compliant in the story of Naseer and Zoya.

This is a powerful play that illuminates effortlessly how people who wish to do good can do monstrous things given the right conditions. The love story between two prison guards feels a little unclear – is it a desperate animal reaction to austere surroundings or is it real love? The chief of the prison, Kasprowicz says that it is, but we see little evidence of this. Nonetheless this is an important comment on how power can be corrupted. The rhyming monologue that concludes The Collector is cold comfort, but we need it to help us to make sense of what we have just witnessed.

The Collector is now closed.

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