Henry Naylor’s latest Arabian Nightmare moves beyond borders

Inspired to write his latest play Borders while in Adelaide, the fourth instalment of Henry Naylor’s powerful Arabian Nightmares series is an Edinburgh Fringe-First Award winner that explores the Syrian refugee crisis.

Known to Adelaide audiences for his Arabian Nightmares plays, which have been a feature of the last two Holden Street Theatres seasons, Henry Naylor first performed at an Adelaide Fringe in 1998 as part of the comedy duo Parsons and Naylor. It would take another 18 years for Naylor to return to Adelaide, this time as a playwright of note with the second in his Arabian Nightmares series, Echoes.

Naylor, who used to write television comedy sketches and also appeared in a series of commercials with Rowan Atkinson, was inspired to write drama over comedy after visiting post-9/11 Afghanistan with a war correspondent friend, as Naylor was dismayed at the sanitised media coverage of the Afghanistan war.

“I was very shocked at how little of the horrors of war we put on the news and how sanitised it is,” Naylor says. “With the Afghan war, there weren’t any dead bodies shown on the news.”

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Avital Lvova also starred in Henry Naylor’s Angel

Before his visit, Naylor’s friend told him of the horrific things he saw on the ground in Afghanistan, which got Naylor thinking about the contrast between what we see on the news and the reality of war. Naylor says this discrepancy forced him to look closely at the Middle East conflict but his plays aren’t just recollections of the horrors.

“With Angel, I tried to make it like an epic movie, really. I tried to give it as much action and as much tension and suspense as you’d see in a blockbuster movie. With Borders, I’ve dug into my comedy past and there’s a lot more humour in this one. But it’s a tragic story as well.”

Angel, which was performed in Adelaide last year, told the story of the semi-mythical female Kurdish sniper who was believed to have killed 100 ISIS fighters and featured his regular collaborator Avital Lvova (who returns to Adelaide in Borders) in the lead role. Naylor was inspired to write Borders after Adelaide’s Kurdish community embraced Angel.

“They kept sending members of the community [to the show], I think one guy came to see it five times,” Naylor says. “They were incredibly hospitable when we were out there. We [Naylor and Lvova] were invited to a huge banquet at this Kurdish community leader’s house. He and his wife were both refugees. They told us about their experiences as refugees and how they ended up in Australia. The wife of the couple ran a program for Yazidis who were sex slaves held by ISIS. They introduced us to a load of people and we got talking about experiences of refugees and that’s what first got us interested in the whole refugee issue.”

Lvova leads Borders by Henry Naylor as a Syrian street artist

Borders is the story of two artists: an unnamed Syrian graffiti artist and a British photographer, Sebastian.

“A lot of the protests against Bashar al-Assad [Syria’s president] were carried out by street artists,” Naylor says. “You had artists in Syria who were doing their art for no reward, who were risking their lives and trying to bring real change for the common good. The other character is a western paparazzo, who started out as a war photographer, went to a terrible global crisis, had good intentions and wanted to change the world for better but then got seduced by money, celebrity and fame.

“He [Sebastian] drifts away from art and makes a fortune but he tends to deal with the more commercial and trivial sides of art whereas the Syrian graffiti was doing it for nothing. Her reward was fleeing her own country. That’s the contrast of the two worlds.”

Naylor says he spends up to six months researching a play before he puts pen to paper. He wants to know the characters intimately to be authentic as possible, as he’s trying to put a human face to the people impacted by the tragic news stories.

“One of the problems I find with the news is that the big global decisions get reported well; what world leaders are doing gets reported well, and when there’s a tragic big incident, that will get reported well for a day. But what happened to the person on the ground? Their story is never followed through and we never really know what the implications of war are to a person on the ground.

“I think that’s where art can play an important role by helping the public connect with people trapped in a war zone and trying to put a human face to it. That’s where we’ve gone wrong with the refugee crisis; people haven’t quite made the emotional connection to the real people. I think that’s partly a failing of the news and partly a failing of art as well.”

Borders by Henry Naylor
The Studio, Holden Street Theatres
Tuesday, February 13 until Sunday, March 18
holdenstreettheatres.com

Header image: Avita Lvova in Borders (photo: Steve Ullathorne)

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