“Literally everything happened when I was out there,” says Henry Naylor. “The most insane things happened.”

The London-based playwright is describing a research trip he took to Afghanistan in 2002, a few months after the Taliban was swept from power by American-led forces. His goal was to gather material for a satirical show about journalists in war zones.

“We nearly got blown up by a landline, we were abducted by a group of mujahideen, we went to the American Embassy and nearly got shot,” he says.

While this sounds like a list of terrifying events, Naylor recalls them with a surprisingly casual tone. But this nonchalance about his own safety does not mean he failed to grasp the gravity of what he witnessed.

“It was such an extreme and visceral and real moment of my life that it’s kind of influenced everything I’ve written since,” he says.

His work, which had previously been solely comedic, charted a new course. Over the past decade, Naylor has emerged as a lauded writer of serious, deeply empathetic plays that interrogate current events across the Middle East.

While the impact of the trip to Afghanistan reverberated in his creations, the story of the journey itself has never been told. This year, at Adelaide Fringe, that will change.

Naylor is premiering Afghanistan is Not Funny at Holden Street Theatres during the festival. While Adelaide is halfway around the world from his home, he says it’s an obvious choice for launching this new solo show.

“I think this is number six for me – that’s how many shows I’ve had there.

“I don’t think Adelaideans necessarily realise how important the festival is… you know, it is a major thing on the world calendar. I’ve had a lot of touring interest off the back of coming to Adelaide Fringe… Echoes got a run in New York because of the reviews it was getting in Adelaide [in 2016].”

The Taliban’s devastating resurgence in Afghanistan last year prompted Naylor to create this new work that grapples directly with his memories of the country.

As American and allied forces abandoned the nation last year and the Taliban reclaimed the country, he became deeply concerned about how quickly the world would forget what was happening there.

“Already you can just feel that the focus of the news is switching away from it,” he says.

Henry Naylor began his performing career as a comedian.

Afghanistan is Not Funny is his contribution to sustaining interest and raising awareness of the many people and organisations still in Afghanistan needing help.

While it has important intent, the piece does see Naylor make a partial return to his comedy roots and to his identity as a performer, after a decade-long break from the stage. The one-person script balances the structure of a theatre work with the spontaneity of a comedy act.

“I’ve been a stand-up comedian and I’ve been a playwright, and I think it’s kind of like a show which sits in between the two,” he says.

“I’m going to give it a sort of an arc, a character journey like I would do in theatre, but keep the honesty of a stand-up show.”

Given Naylor’s uncanny ability to navigate a story that involves being held at gunpoint by a warlord in such a way that it feels like laughter underscores, rather than detracts from, the seriousness of the situation, this hybrid genre feels likely to work.

After years of restricted touring due to COVID-19, he is excited to bring his new show to Adelaide, where – through Fringe’s Honey Pot International Arts Marketplace – he’s often found international touring opportunities.

“One of the real problems with art, I think, is the artists do their stuff and the producers do their stuff, and it’s quite difficult to meet in an informal setting and work out how the two things could come together.

“Honey Pot has been really good for me. I did a show called Games a few years ago… and there was a producer from America who came over to see it and he loved it, but he thought it needed some adapting for an American audience.

“Normally, he would have just seen the show and gone, ‘That’s great, but I can’t put it on’. But because he came through Honey Pot and because I’d heard that he liked it, I was able to meet him… and I said, ‘Well, why don’t I change those bits?’. Because of that meeting it had a run in New York for nearly two months.”

Whether or not this debut season triggers another world tour, Naylor is hopeful that telling his story will have an impact. As he recounts his reasons for bringing it to life now, he speaks of a friend from Afghanistan who, for months, has been desperately trying to find a passage out.

Naylor hopes this show will give audiences pause – to think about his friends, and the many others in similar situations, left behind to live under a hostile regime. 

“There’s a danger that people will be forgotten again in Afghanistan,” he says. “If nothing else, I wanted to try, in my small way, to put it back on the agenda.”

Afghanistan is Not Funny is showing in The Studio at Holden Street Theatres from February 15 to March 13 as part of the Adelaide Fringe.

The Business of Art is an InReview series about the development of performing arts careers and opportunities from Adelaide. The series has been produced with the support of Adelaide Fringe.

Read more of the series here.

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