February 17, 2022

Fringe review: Afghanistan is Not Funny

Adelaide Fringe
Murray Bramwell
Fringe review: Afghanistan is Not Funny
Five Stars

A high-profile comedian visits a war zone in Kabul and it not only transforms him, but the things he wants to write about. This often comic memoir looks for answers to serious questions.

Henry Naylor is the master of the dramatic miniature. His plays, rarely more than sixty minutes in duration, are a crowded hour of fact, polemic, suspense, and compressed emotion that take us where other playwrights fear to tread.

His Arabian Nightmares quartet brought us face to face with people such as Rehana the sniper; Jane the investigative journalist; Kane, the hero in an unpopular war – painfully recognisable in their human detail, but also emblematic of the cruel quagmire that has been Middle Eastern geopolitics for so long.

In his latest work, which has its world premiere in Adelaide, Naylor (crisply directed by Martha Lott) takes to the stage himself to present a candid memoir – reflecting on the first-hand war experiences that steered him towards his now signature brand of high impact theatre.

Afghanistan is Not Funny describes the shift for Naylor – and for world politics – after the 9/11 attacks in 2001. After working successfully in topical comedy, with TV hits such as Spitting Image and Dead Ringers, as well as a weekly half hour spot on BBC Radio 2, Naylor discovers that the new war footing meant self-censorship. Satirists and comic critics – working in the spirit of Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove and Robert Altmann’s MASH – needed to pull their heads in.

A chance suggestion from a journalist, and encouraged by his friend, war photographer Sam Maynard, led Naylor in 2002 to travel to Taliban ruled post-war Kabul to see the situation for himself. His account is energised, mordantly funny, and filled with a sense of the lethal chaos of a country left in ruins. There are run-ins with rogue army officers, scar-faced warlords and the traumatised civilians. The country is a literal minefield, the daily experience is of imminent random danger.

But there is also a bravado in the venture. Maynard is pushing to get to ever more dangerous zones for graphic, but brilliant, photo evidence – of wrecked villages and tank graveyards, or posing the cheering Mujhadeen with their weapons and munitions. When asked why he is in Kabul, Naylor tells the warlord that they are gathering photo stills to illustrate a show at the Edinburgh Fringe !

The show, entitled Finding Bin Laden, becomes a festival hit; there is serious talk of a film adaptation and Naylor recalls his excitement at the prospect. But as he has said, Afghanistan is Not Funny – and it is also not fuel for adventurism. Naylor takes his narrative into more rigorous reflection and despite the wit and personable comedy in this performance, its heft is towards conscience and engagement.

The proof of that intention is in the future we already know- Echoes and Angel, Borders and The Nights. The Henry Naylor plays we have celebrated on the very stage he is now standing on.

Afghanistan is Not Funny is playing at The Studio, Holden Street Theatres until March 13.

Fringe review: Afghanistan is Not Funny

Published online at InDaily February 17, 2022.

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