The Hope Street Theatre plays host this week to the B Collective and their debut production of The Collector, Henry Naylor’s haunting tale of an Iraqi interpreter in Mazarat Gaol in the midst of the George W. Bush-era Iraq war. Produced by Natasha Patel and directed by Ellie Hurt, The Collector is an enthralling, intense and thought-provoking piece, a poignant portrayal of the brutality that plagues mankind and a truly remarkable debut for the B Collective, a Liverpool-based theatre company formed in 2018 by graduates of the Young Everyman Playhouse programme.
The play centres on Mazarat Gaol in Iraq in 2003. Saddam Hussein is gone, yet the war is by no means over when Nassir, Iraqi citizen, collector of all things hip hop, bonds with US checkpoint soldiers over American music, receiving from them daily copies of CDs to add to his growing collection of rap tunes, which had been banned under the Saddam regime. Soon, he is asked to become an interpreter at the infamous jail in Mazarat, now taken over by the Americans, but where the hooks remain on the ceilings and the chairs with blood-soaked straps still stand on the bloodstained concrete floors, a haunting reminder of the sadism of the Saddam regime.
The Collector follows Nassir’s story, told through three accounts – that of his girlfriend Zoya, and two Americans – his work colleague Sergeant Foster, a believer in progressive interrogation techniques and the US ‘liberating mission’ in Iraq, and the jail commander Captain, following the sometimes contradictory edicts of American high command. As tensions rise and violence flares when the insurgency picks up pace, Nassir finds himself increasingly viewed as a traitor by his fellow Iraqis for collaborating with the Americans, and the Americans move towards increasingly extreme measures as they try to bring the situation under control.
The Collector is simply an exceptional piece, brilliantly produced and directed with mesmerising performances from the cast of three, comprising Reginald Edwards as Captain, Jennifer Varda as Zoya, and Kathryn McGurk as Foster, confiding in the audience their version of events, their secret thoughts, hopes and fears. Surrounding a concrete plinth in the centre of the theatre, like spectators around a wrestling ring, the audience are addressed directly throughout. The lighting, shifting occasionally to put the spotlight on each section of the audience, was somewhat disorientating, as though at times we were also under interrogation.
Indeed, this is a play that interrogates – an unflinching exploration of how the American forces turned towards brutality and began to resemble the regime they had just replaced, exposing the hypocrisy and incoherence of the US strategy in Iraq. When special forces take over one part of the jail for ‘advanced interrogation’ techniques including stress positions and waterboarding, the discarded tools of torture of the old regime start to come back into use.
Foster is appalled and approaches the Captain, who checks it out – with four contesting rule books to consult, he explains, the legal position is in a state of chaos: ‘there were so many rules there were no rules’! As the line between liberator and oppressor becomes hopelessly blurred, Nassir begins to question which side he should really be on.
Although this seems hardly the subject for comedy, at times the Collector is very funny, playing around with stereotypes of nationhood, both Iraqi and American. The piece critically examines the idea of American culture as a force for liberation, exploding the myth of the American dream and exposing the fault lines of a divided society. With events taking place in Iraq, the historical Fertile Crescent, cradle of civilisation, The Collector squarely locates the ultimate horrors of war in the context of a millenniums-long battle, of human nature, of the enemy within- mankind in all his brutality! The Collector is running at Hope Street Theatre until Saturday 10th November and tickets for this remarkable production are still available here.
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Images Courtesy of the B Collective and John K Roberts Photography