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Edinburgh Fringe 2023

Afghanistan Is Not Funny

Henry Naylor

Genre: Biography, Theatre

Venue: Gilded Balloon


Low Down

It is summer 2021, and the West pulls out of Afghanistan. Naylor sees the tragedy unfold on TV and starts to question his own life choice to visit the country some 20 years earlier. Over the next mostly intense but sometimes very funny 75 minutes, Naylor takes us on his personal journey with the country and its people.


The stage is bleak. Two black old-style college tables stand side by side; behind them, a white chair each. The title of the play is sprayed all over them: “Afghanistan Is Not Funny.” On the wall behind is a large screen, projected on it is a photo of Naylor in his late thirties. We discover later that this is from when he visited Afghanistan.

When Naylor comes on stage, he walks around agitatedly and speaks fast, very fast. We relive with him August 2021, when he watches the horrendous scenes at Kabul airport on TV. He is distraught and speaks to his therapist, who introduces him to the Four Stages of Competence. This psychological model from the 60s punctuates the play. These four scenes where Naylor plays his own therapist, explaining the model, are a form of Greek chorus. They give each section a focus, without which the play might be less easy to follow.

Naylor takes us back to 2001 when he was a successful satirist and was about to work on Radio 2. He is recording for his freshly commissioned topical comedy show when 9/11 happens. The show gets cancelled: Afghanistan just isn’t funny. He bemoans the ‘Disneyfication’ of news yet is glued to his TV. He watches live as William Reeve dives for cover when a bomb hits the building next to the BBC office. The cameraman runs to his aid; the cameraman is Naylor’s old flatmate Sam.

Naylor feels compelled to write a play. He calls the news correspondent Phil Goodwin and asks him to read his play as someone who has been reporting from Afghanistan. Goodwin suggests Naylor travel to the country himself. Naylor, with his old flatmate Sam, does just that against Naylor’s agent’s advice.

The only fixer they can get is a young surgeon who speaks impeccable English learned from listening to the World Service. It is Humayun’s first job as a fixer, but this is the only way he can feed his family. The small group travels across the country and encounters nothing but ruins for miles, dotted with signs saying UXO. Humayun explains that this stands for Unexploded Ordinance, i.e., active mines or bombs. In Kabul, they visit the ruins of the Darul Aman Palace. There is a hole in front of one of the stairwells. The soldiers at the palace are agitated. Through their fixer, Naylor and his photographer Sam find out that a suicide bomber had tried to plant a device there and it went off. The picture of the place is thrown at the screen, and Naylor casually points out that the discoloration on the wall next to the steps is what remained of the suicide bomber.

The play, which at times feels like a lecture, is dotted with this kind of dark humour. It betrays Naylor’s satirist past before he became an award-winning playwright. It does make the horror of the whole trip a bit more bearable.

Naylor meets very interesting people, and through Sam’s photographs, we meet them as well: An old man who made a sculpture of missiles and weapons without caring whether they are still live or not. The Minister for Women who ran an illegal school under Taliban rule and on whose walls hang signs symbolizing ‘no smoking’ and ‘no guns’. The people who fit over 80 children with prostheses every week for limbs lost in land mine incidents. The parents of a child with polio who needs an amputation and who don’t understand the doctors who speak a different local language. Nothing brings home more powerfully what is often forgotten in the West: Afghanistan is a multi-nation state. Created not along cultural and linguistic borders but by colonial powers with their own interests at heart. We meet men who come again and again to a bombed stone processing plant hoping to get their old jobs back. In case you wonder why the US bombed a stone processing plant, they mistook it for a Bin Laden hideout. Of course, there was no compensation for the damage from the US, and so the plant stays in ruins.

Naylor’s personal experiences with the US Army are sobering for those who still believe that the US behaves decently as an occupying power. There are moments we can taste the fear when the two Brits and the Fixer end up too close to warlords. We hear from ordinary people, men and women, about their daily struggles and choices, accompanied by powerful pictures. Often saying more than Naylor’s eloquence.

The experience is sobering for Naylor, and his original idea of a play becomes less attractive. He writes a sitcom for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, accompanied by a photo exhibition. It is a huge hit; he wins prizes and establishes himself as a playwright. Only, 20 years later when the Allies pull out of Afghanistan in a total shambles and leave those who supported them and now face certain death to fend for themselves, does he realize the job isn’t done. He ends the play with a harrowing picture that has become a red thread for his narration.

Naylor’s play is very personal, maybe too personal at times, but also very interesting. The backstory takes a rather long time and could have maybe wound up a bit more quickly. The play overruns by fifteen minutes and feels very rushed. At times it is hard to take it all in. It probably could have done with a longer time slot. Stretched over ninety minutes, this play might be easier to digest.


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