Review by Carly Fisher
Though true that plays about war are seldom funny, Henry Naylor’s Afghanistan is Not Funny offers a clever and thought provoking balance between the urgency that comes with sharing an important story, and a healthy dose of humour.
Henry Naylor is no stranger to the Fringe stage having performed in himself, and had his plays performed, in fringes the world over. Afghanistan is Not Funny pays tribute to his history with the fringe as he recalls the writing of one of his first plays (that too was performed at the Gilded Balloon as part of Edinburgh Fringe) about a satirical take on being a war reporter in Afghanistan that arrived at the scene constantly behind the BBC. Excited with the script and ready to take it to Edinburgh, his agent challenged - ‘have you fact checked this?’
And with that question, an entirely different life path seemingly emerged for Naylor. This play documents that journey.
When encouraged by a friend of his serving as a cameraman in Afghanistan during the war to come and see what it was like for himself, Naylor set off to the war torn country alongside his friend and career press photographer, Sam Maynard. Naylor cleverly tells of his and Sam’s journey through Afghanistan in 2002, and the profound impact that the trip had on them, by interweaving stories from the trip, photographs from Maynard’s collection, and tales from long after they returned home to the UK. Importantly, though laced with Naylor’s signature humour, the reverence of memory and significance of the war is never brushed over or understated. The respect that Naylor and Maynard hold for those whom they met on their journey is well established.
If to critique only a small detail of this show, unfortunately I felt that the middle of the piece seemed a little self indulgent as we heard of movie deals, millions and multitudes of opportunities that arose as a result of having performed his piece about Afghanistan. Sure, these lines about relationships with Hugh Grant and Russell Brand attract audience laughter, but so too do Naylor’s intricate details about finding this story in the first place, and then what was found. Though ultimately the stories came around, the middle piece of the show for me could use a bit of an edit to trim down these details and allow more time for the stories that really serve here as a reminder of how powerfully theatre can be used as a call to action.
Though minimal, the set design was quite compelling with the use of two mirroring black and white tables and chairs cleverly stamped with the title of the show in font that carried heavy military implications. Leaving the rest of the set stark was a strong choice - Naylor serves as the only spot of colour in an otherwise entirely black and white setting allowing both him and Maynard’s photography to really shine.
The stories he tells are haunting and whilst I think that this would be a strong piece for male actors to perform even if it were not Naylor himself telling it, there is a clear pain but also respect that glistens in Naylor’s eyes as he recalls what he saw there. Clearly this was an experience that has had an indelible impact on him.
Throughout the fast paced, hard hitting hour you can expect to laugh but also to catch yourself laughing at times - is it okay to laugh when just moments before we were talking about the horrors of war? That is exactly what this piece serves to challenge - our imposed sense of what is decent and what is respectful in times of war. But truth be told, there is nothing decent about these times and Naylor’s piece is a clear call for us to consider this when we censor what can be seen and said about war.
He calls for all of us, as citizens of the world, to be more aware, more alert and more active in the telling of, or even in the receiving of information of wars. Because though it may make us uncomfortable, these are real people’s stories and lives that need to be remembered.
As you walk out of the theatre, final image fresh in your mind, it is hard not to continue to think of these stories and to remember who always is the ultimate victim of war.