Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Henry Naylor: Angel

By | Published on Thursday 7 September 2017

We’ve been aware of the work of Henry Naylor for quite some time now, having followed his work in the comedy sphere, and, in more recent years as the writer of rather more serious theatrical peices. He’s had a number of hits up at the Edinburgh Festival of late, winning lots of awards and acclaim.

‘Angel’ took the Fringe by storm back in 2016, and so when I heard it was headed for a run at London’s Arcola theatre, I thought it was definitely time for a chat: about this show, his other recent output, and what we can expect in the future.

CM: Tell us about the narrative of ‘Angel’ – where does the story take us?
HN: ‘Angel’ is based on the story of a young farm Kurdish-Syrian girl called Rehana who had grand ambitions of becoming a lawyer. But when ISIS besieged her hometown of Kobane, she jettisoned her studies to join the joined a female militia. She became a crackshot sniper, killing over 100 of the enemy – before her own tragic end.

CM: This mythical story – of the ‘Angel of Kobane’ swept the internet a few years back, of course. What made you decide to use this idea to create the play?
HN: I think people should know about the Siege of Kobane – as it was one of the most important battles of the century so far. For the best part of a year, Kobane was the frontline of the war between democracy and fundamentalism, between freedom and tyranny – and it was one of the turning points in the fight against Extremism. And yet the person on the street barely knows about it, and that’s because, despite the internet stories, the siege was barely covered by the western media.

Many western news editors withdrew their journalists, because of the obvious dangers. And so the sacrifices of fighters – on both sides – are in danger of being forgotten. Which is extraordinary, given that the fighting was so fierce, this siege was compared to that of Stalingrad.

So in answer to your question, I latched onto the story of The Angel because it gives the story of the siege a human face, and makes it accessible to the public.

CM: What themes were you intending to explore when you wrote it?
HN: Wow. There’s a lot in the show.

On the macro level – it’s about the horrible paradox – that peaceful societies are often founded upon violence. My version of Rehana’s story is the embodiment of that idea. That she initially believed in the rule of law and then ended up believing in the rule of the gun. Her choices turn her from pacifist to hardened killer. That arc is the stuff of drama.

Hand-in-hand with that idea, I wanted to show how we’re all shaped and influenced by geopolitics. That our ambitions and dreams can be crushed by the ambitions of others.

Then, on the micro level – much of the story is very personal. It’s about family businesses and, well, families.

CM: How much research did you do before writing it?
HN: Loads. The details are often what gives a show its authenticity, and so I studied the conflict and the region intensively for around six months before even picking up a pen to write.

Most of my research is done in the internet, but for this show I interviewed Kurds from the region, and war correspondents, soldiers, etc. In my story Rehana is the daughter of a pistachio farmer and so I became an expert on pistachio farming. I know all about the equipment and the tools the farmers use!

CM: Why did you decide that it would be a one-person show?
HN: It was always going to be a one-woman show. I wrote it whilst on tour with the show Echoes. Filipa Bragança was in that show, and she told me she was up for doing a one-person show in Edinburgh. So I wrote it with her in mind. In ‘Echoes’ she’d showed an astonishing ability to switch from one character to another, so I played on that.
There are 17 different characters in the show. It’s an extraordinary test of an actor’s versatility and ability. She nailed it. She was brilliant.

CM: It was first staged at the Fringe in 2016 – have you made any changes to it since then?
HN: No real changes to the script. But there’s a different actress in the lead role. The current Angel is Avital Lvova. Her interpretation is equally brilliant to Filipa’s – but very different. In her hands the show has a different energy. Filipa’s delivery was poetic and musical, whereas Avital’s is intense and physical. She performs it like a one-woman action movie. One hardened New York critic was so impressed, she said Avital’s was the most “harrowing and brilliant” performance she’d ever seen!

I don’t prefer one interpretation to the other – both approaches are equally valid, and equally wonderful.

CM: It’s part of a trilogy, isn’t it? Can you tell us about the other two, and how they fit together?
HN: Well, although they’re called a trilogy, the stories don’t really ‘fit together’ at all. Each is a stand-alone play. You don’t have to have seen the others to get the best out of it.

‘The Collector’ was the first play. It’s set in an Abu Ghraib-style prison in 2003. It follows the story of an Iraqi translator, who was very pro-west but becomes increasingly disillusioned with the Allied occupation, after seeing western troops torturing the inmates.

The second play, ‘Echoes’, is a deliberately provocative play, which compares Victorian pioneer women with jihadi brides. It shows that the brutality and violence that has been perpetrated by ISIS finds an echo in the British colonial past.

But I suppose there are elements which recur in all three. Basically, they all deal with ordinary people, who have their lives destroyed by historical events. There’s a strong feminist bent to the shows. And stylistically they’re similar: there’s no set, and the characters all deliver their stories directly to the audience.

CM: Until fairly recently, most of the work we knew you for was in comedy territory. What made you take a turn for the serious?
HN: I kind of stumbled into it. When I wrote ‘The Collector’, I wanted to write a satire about the Allied occupation of Iraq, but the more I started to research the project, the more the characters became ‘real’ to me. And the more I realised I had some serious points I wanted to make – which I didn’t want to undermine by overloading the piece with comedy. So it became a ‘serious’ drama.

The show won a Fringe First, which made me realise that I COULD write serious plays. And because the critics and the festivals seemed to like them – I kept going!

CM: You seem very focused on material set in the middle east – why is that?
HN: I’ve written about ‘what’s in the news’ all my career. The events in the Middle East – and their fall out – are the most important stories in the World right now. I think I can provide some kind of insight into this problematic story, as I’ve been following the story closely for 30 years.

Also, I went to Afghanistan after the war in 2001, to research a project. It changed my life – I saw the warzone first hand and saw the devastation and suffering. I went to refugee camps and to a factory which made prosthetic limbs for landmine victims. It had a profound effect on me, and so I’ve been keen to inform the public about what’s been going on in the region ever since.

CM: So you feel a responsibility, as a writer, to tackle political issues? Do you think anything can be achieved by doing so?
HN: Yes. Undoubtedly. I think the Arts has a duty to play a part in the public debate. Particularly now, particularly when the Press is being compromised.

Because of the internet, people are no longer paying for their news – they’re getting it free, online. And so they aren’t buying as many newspapers as they used to do. Papers like The Independent have been laying off their staff, and nearly going under. And so the public aren’t getting the reliable information they used to. The Arts must try and fill the void, by being informed and entertaining at the same time.

CM: What plans do you have for the future?
HN: I’ve just done another play at Edinburgh called ‘Borders’, which was a hit, and so we’ll be touring that and ‘Angel’ for a while. We’ve got gigs lined up in Moscow, Cape Verde, New York, Austria and Australia – so we’ll be busy. But also I fancy writing something completely different. I’ve got an idea for an eighties musical…

‘Angel’ is on at Arcola Theatre from 11 Sep-7 Oct. See the venue website here for info and to book.

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Photo: Rosalind Furlong