Henry Naylor brought is award winning one-man show “Afghanistan is Not Funny” at the Soho Playhouse as part of its International Fringe Encore festival. In between performing to packed houses, he was kind enough to answer a few questions from Stagebiz.
Stagebiz: What did you think you were going to find when you left for Afghanistan? What were your pre-conceived ideas and how right or wrong were you?
HN: I’d followed the post 9/11 Afghan War obsessively on the news. So my perceptions were shaped – and distorted – by our well-meaning media.
Inevitably because I watched the British news, I believed that Britain had been right at the heart of the action in 2001/2.
But I was forgetting that in the initial part of the war, in 2001/2 there had been no ‘boots on the ground.’ The West had relied on local troops to do the ground fighting, while we bombed from the air.
The locals seemed only dimly aware that we’d been involved. There wasn’t the gratitude that I imagined there might be.
I’d also accepted that the locals had embraced the liberation, by shaving off their beards or throwing off their burkas. This wasn’t the case, in reality. When I arrived, I was surprised to see that the majority of people still wore both – out of choice.
And Kabul itself was very different. I’d seen photos of Kabul – taken in the 80s. And it looked really green and leafy. But when I got there – I discovered that many of the trees had been chopped down. I was told they’d been felled, to stop snipers from hiding in them.
Stagebiz: What was the hardest part about bringing the story to the stage?
HN: There are some genuinely upsetting moments that I keep having to revisit on stage. There was a girl in a refugee camp who presented us her dead sibling. We saw other kids, as young as 10, who’d lost limbs due to landmine injuries. Another kid was having his legs amputated because he had polio. I underestimated the emotional toll that revisiting these stories every night on stage would place upon me. This is not like one of my dramas – it’s a personal story; I can’t hide behind a character.
Stagebiz: What do you wish you had done differently while in Afghanistan?
HN: Through naivety – or ignorance – we took more risks than we needed to. Part of the reason the show has been such a hit, though, is because we did take some stupid risks. The stories are great, but looking back at my younger self, I was reckless.
Stagebiz: Were there any incidents that did not make it into the show that you think are worth mentioning?
HM: In the show, I’ve generally only chosen to talk about incidents for which we have photos (we use a slide show to accompany the action). But there was one particularly hair-raising incident which I didn’t talk about.
The military bases were hotspots for insurgent and Taliban attacks. We’d driven past one to try and find the Tank Graveyard. On our return, we found that a suicide bomber had detonated their vehicle outside the base – just minutes before. As there was a lot of debris to clear and inspect, the road was blocked and there was a traffic jam – in which we were trapped for several hours. We knew there were anti-Western bombers in the area. People were walking up and down the stationary line of cars, peering into our vehicle. We were stuck. Some of those people were very hostile. We knew that if one of those guys was seeking to kill Westerners – we were a sitting duck.
Stagebiz: Did anyone try to talk you out of going to Kabul?
HN: Obviously members of my close family weren’t happy about it. And all my friends thought I was mad. Heck, I wasn’t sure it was a good idea myself. Before I set off, I made my then-partner promise that if I did get killed out there, she’d make sure my body came home!
Stagebiz: How did the Soho Playhouse convince you to bring the show to their Encore program?
HN: I didn’t need much convincing, to be honest. I think the Fringe Encore is a fabulous initiative – it’s kind-of The Fringe Circuit’s ‘World Cup’ Finals. They select 14 of the best acts out of 1,000s from Fringes all over the world: Milan, Canada, Australia, the UK, the US, etc etc And it’s great to be included in that company.
After the constrictions of the Pandemic, as a spectator – it’s great to be able to see these fabulous acts in the flesh. And as an artist – it’s wonderful to hang out with like-minded theatre-makers again. I’m a fan!
Stagebiz: How do audience reactions vary around the world?
HN: Honestly – they don’t vary as much as I thought they would. I think there’s a global interest in Afghanistan. And collectively, across the world, there seems to be a sense of shame and frustration about how The West conducted itself in that country. We know we screwed up. Yes, I’ve had to change one or two of the jokes to fit local tastes – but it’s a universal story.
Stagebiz: During a festival, what do you do between your own performances?
HN: I love seeing the other acts. Fringe theatre presents its own unique set of challenges – and it’s fascinating seeing how other theatre makers tackle them.
I’m also loving seeing New York! What a city. And what a great place to be when the World Cup is on.. I keep finding bars where the clientele are all watching one of the competing teams.. the atmosphere is electric.
Stagebiz: What are some of your upcoming projects?
HN: I am writing a couple of plays at the moment. One, about the pandemic: the challenge when writing about COVID is to be original, entertaining and commercial! I’m mean, who wants to see a play about COVID, right? We all lived it!! ..but I’m excited about the angle I’ve got – I think it’s a genuinely unique and dramatic take. The second is a sports story. I’m hoping to have both out by this time next year.
Stagebiz: John Simpson, the BBC journalist who pops up in your show a few times, is a Commander of the British Empire for his services to British journalism. What are you expecting in the New Years’ Honours List?
HN: If I was told I was a CBE for my travails in Afghanistan – it would be for being a Crazy B***dy Eejit.
“Afghanistan is Not Funny” is playing at the Soho Playhouse at 15 Vandam Street in New York City as part of its International Fringe Encore program on December 7 and 9 at 7 pm. December 10 at 5 pm and December 11 at 9pm. For tickets and more information, visit the Soho Playhouse website.