Echoes tells the stories of two women, born 175 years apart. A student jihadi from London – the other a Victorian member of the Fishing Fleet (women who travelled to India to be brides men who were setting up the Empire). Henry Naylor tells us how his ideas for two different plays became one, the importance of strong female roles and his shift from comedy to dramatic writing.
What made you realise that student jihadis and the Victorian members of the Fishing Fleet (the women who travelled to India to be brides of those men who were setting up the Empire) had a lot in common, and why did you decide to write a play about the parallels between them?
It’s weird, but I kind of stumbled into writing Echoes.
I originally had the notion of writing two separate plays. One about the British occupation of Kabul, and one about Jihadi brides.
I’d been obsessed about the British occupation of Kabul for nearly 15 years after visiting war-ravaged Afghanistan in 2003 (I was researching another project – a play called Finding Bin Laden)
My fixer out there proudly told me that the Afghans had kicked the Brits’ backsides. That they slaughtered our entire occupying force. And he took me on a tour of the ruins of the British cantonment.
I’d never heard of the story. We Brits had kind of written it out of our history. Not so the Afghans. It was a huge source of national pride…
It’s an extraordinary tale. The Empire sent a garrison of 15,000 to Afghanistan in 1839, to protect the trade routes to India. The Brits pissed off the locals – there was an insurrection – and only one Brit escaped alive. It was brutal.
I thought it was an extraordinary story – I’d been reading up about that for yonks. And was going to write a play about that.
But last Feb, I got obsessed with the Jihadi bride phenomenon. I decided I wanted to write about that for the Edinburgh Fringe.
I thought it was an unrelated story. Again I got obsessed; I couldn’t understand why smart, Westernized schoolgirls would want to flee to Syria, to become housewives in a basement. And so I started obsessively researching their psyche.
So I was researching the two different projects at once.
I only made the link between the stories, when I read an account of the British colonial pioneer-women. It was a book about the Fishing Fleet. The Fishing Fleet were a group of young, often school-age, girls who were given free passage to India on the condition that would make themselves available to be wives of the Empire builders. They were single, often religious, with a keen spirit of adventure. They were usually naïve about the brutality required to set up an Empire.
I suddenly realized that there was an extraordinary parallel between the religious colonialism of ISIS, and the British pioneers. And wrote one play instead of two!
A lot of writing is like that. You set out to write one show – end up writing something completely different.
Did you find it difficult to write from the point of view of two 17-year-old women?
No. I often get women who are surprised that a man has written Echoes. It has a strong feminist message. And the characters feel real. But I’m surrounded by strong women in my personal life. So it wasn’t too difficult to create the roles.
In all honesty, playwrights should be able to empathise with, and create any person, whatever the gender – or race – of the character. It’s their job to create ‘real,’ living people.
Besides, if you’ve done your work researching a project, you’ll know the characters so well, that they’ll gradually take over, and begin writing itself.,
I think it’s an indictment of our industry that people should be surprised that a man is writing decent parts for women.
It’s one of the biggest – and legitimate – complaints in showbiz, that there aren’t enough decent roles for women.
I don’t know why more male writers don’t create more substantial female roles. Perhaps they find it easier to ‘write what they know about’ – i.e. themselves. Or perhaps they’re too lazy to do the research. Or maybe it’s that old bugbear sexism.
But with decent research, a male playwright should be able to create decent female roles.
You’re known both as a playwright and the lead writer of the satirical TV show Spitting Image. The Guardian said that you “daringly go for jokes in Echoes, despite the darkness of the subject.” Did you find it difficult to incorporate humor into a play with such a serious subject? Did your experiences as a Spitting Image writer help?
One of the funniest people I know is a war correspondent. He’s seen horrors you and I can’t even imagine. His coping mechanism is to laugh about what he’s seen.
I think humour is essential in dealing with dark subject matter. The show would be unremittingly gloomy without it. Unwatchable, even. Frequently, the more serious the event, the more an audience wants some kind of release.
Besides, humans are inherently ridiculous. The more we take ourselves seriously, the more comical we become. We are just apes with delusions of grandeur, after all.
When I used to write for Spitting Image, I used to set myself the challenge of trying to ‘find the funny’ in the darkest places. I’d be the writer penning jokes about the IRA, for instance. For me, it was a badge of pride.
Was there a specific moment when you decided to switch from comedy to dramatic writing, or was it more of a gradual shift?
I kind of stumbled into it. My first tragic-drama was about the Abu Ghraib atrocities, called The Collector. I was originally trying to make a comedy about it. But in the middle of writing, I realised that I was genuinely very angry about what had gone on. And that I did so much research that the characters became 3-dimensional. I owed it to the characters to make them ‘real.’
What’s the best piece of advice you can give aspiring playwrights?
If it’s hurting, it’s working. Writing can be really unpleasant. A test of your nerve and character. I find that when I’m doubting myself the most – when I’m feeling the most insecure and uncertain – I end up writing my best stuff. Pride and fear help focus the mind.
“Naylor and two beautifully nuanced performances give equal emotional weight to two disparate victims of religious colonialism in this hugely impressive play.” ★★★★ The Guardian Read Full Article
“A clever and subtly nuanced piece that examines the plight of women across time, through the lenses of sexual inequality, religious duty and betrayal.” ★★★★ Broadway Baby Read Full Article
Come and see Echoes on Tuesday 29 March. It will be followed by a set by Such Small Hands, an electro-folk/pop project derived from the melancholy writings of Melanie Howard.
Find out more and book tickets here