Henry Naylor is the master of the dramatic miniature. His plays, rarely more than 60 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, and 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 discovered 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.

In 2002, a chance suggestion from a journalist, and encouragement by his war photographer friend Sam Maynard, led Naylor to travel to 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 encounters with rogue army officers, scar-faced warlords and 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 the cheering Mujahideen posing 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.

That show, 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 on which he is now standing.

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

Read more 2022 Adelaide Fringe stories and reviews here.


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This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.