The Great Game: Afghanistan

Lee Blessing, Stephen Jeffreys, Ron Hutchinson, Amit Gupta, Joy Wilkinson, David Edgar, David Greig, Colin Teevan, Ben Ockrent, Abi Morgan, Richard Bean, Simon Stephens, Siba Shakib and Richard Norton Taylor
Tricycle Theatre
(2010)

This is a sequence of 16 plays, some of them short monologues or duologues plus passages of verbatim material that trace the history of conflict in Afghanistan from the days of the 'Great Game', the rivalry between the British and Russian Empires for supremacy in Central Asia, right up to the present moment. Hugely acclaimed when first produced last year, this revival replaces one play with a new one, has updated verbatim material to ensure its topicality and some new cast members. I cannot comment on what difference the changes make for I was not lucky enough to see last year's production but I can unequivocally agree that this is an important and rewarding theatrical experience.

You may think you know your Imperial history, follow the latest news but there will be something here that's new to you and will add to your understanding. This is a crash course in history and politicking but it never lectures and it is always engaging. Some pieces, especially the brief monologues, need their context to add resonance to their relevance but among them are others that could well stand alone but gain immeasurably by being seen together.

Part 1: Invasions and Independence

The sequence opens with Siba Shakib's Monologue in which Mohammed Mashal (Vincent Ebrahim) is painting a mural in Herat in 1996, the year the Taliban took Kabul. The picture presents iconic images of Afghan history and culture, most recognisably the Bamiyan Buddha statue that was destroyed by the Taliban, and forms the background to the play until we reach the autumn of 2001. What happens to the painting is all part of the drama.

To this mural Pamela Howard's pared-down design adds furniture, significant costume, James Farncombe's atmospheric lighting and, at one point, a fall of snow on a Rolls Royce bonnet until in an effect prepared for us by the Taliban the World Trade Centre' twin towers are destroyed before us and are followed down by rows of white-flowered opium poppies.

Armies have marched into Afghanistan since the days of Alexander the Great. Genghis Khan swept in with conquering hordes and Tamberlaine, Moghul emperor Babur, made it his summer capital and was buried in his garden there, but the Tricycle begins its history with the British. In 1839 a British army marched from India to effect a 'regime change' to secure their influence. They ousted the current ruler and installed their own puppet, or so they thought, but it all went wrong. Stephen Jeffrey's Bugles at the Gates of Jalalabad presents us with four buglers sounding the retreat in the forlorn hope of there being any survivors from the British retreat from Kabul - of 16,000 only one reached Jalalabad. In a scene intercut with a general's wife's account of what happened to her, a local philosopher tries to debate with bandsmen but they, like their commanders and the politicians who sent them, there have no local understanding. Today's situations already seem to be pre-echoed.

A paean from Afghan heroine Malalai who led the Afghans in another British defeat in 1880 leads to Ron Hutchinson's Durand's Line, a study of British diplomacy thirteen years later. Michael Cochrane's suavely resolute Henry Durand (British India's Foreign Minister) is pressuring Raad Rawi's wily Amir Abdul Rahman to sign acceptance of an arbitrary border between India and Afghanistan. It is not just in Afghanistan that map-making of this kind has left a legacy of conflict but here we see another ingredient in a recipe for disaster.

Jumping to the present day, after contributions from US General McChrystal, who resigned his command in Afghanistan in June, and others, we find ourselves in a Whitehall office for Amit Gupta's Campaign with an ill-informed Foreign Office official trying to find expert support for an original but clearly flawed strategy, the inspiration for which is the subject of Joy Wilkinson's Now is the Time. We are back in 1929 and would-be secularist moderniser King Amanullah Khan (Daniel Rabin), his wife Soroya (Shereen Martineau) and her ex- Foreign Minister father are fleeing from Kabul. A domestic dimension here parallels the political mistrust and the conflict between tribal values and western ideas of justice and equality highlighted.

Part 2: Communism, the Mujahideen & the Taliban

Black Tulips by David Edgar presents the Russian attitude on Afghanistan backwards through the 1980s delivered through military briefings, his jokey presentation of perestroika and politically corrective translation are a bit heavy handed but there is dark humour in a landmine lecture delivered by Rick Warden as a Soviet Ensign.

The new play follows: Lee Blessing's Wood for the Fire, revealing the deep involvement of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence, through which US funding was passed to the Mujahideen and Islamic militants to undermine the Russians but effectively creating both al-Quaeda terrorists and the Taliban.

David Grieg's duologue Miniskirts of Kabul is an imagined meeting between a British woman journalist (Jemma Redgrave) and former Afghan President Najibullah, now effectively under house arrest in the UN compound as the Taliban advance on Kabul. Daniel Rabin gives a a powerful portrait of a man of some charm, prepared to be ruthless and cruel if that is what is needed to hasten what he sees as good for his people, a man who has grown up at university with many of those who now oppose him. There is an element of fantasy to this play, with the journo able to conjure up whisky and even the Spice Girls to please her subject, but is it fantasy to think that if the US had not given his enemies support he might have been a solution instead of meeting the grisly end that the journalist predicts for him?

That play ends in violence but it reaches a different level in Colin Teevan's The Lion of Kabul. This is not the metaphorical name for a human leader but a real lion, Manjan, the one-eyed big cat among the surviving animals starving in the Zoo in Taliban Kabul who survived until 2002. He had been blinded by a grenade said to have been thrown by a soldier in revenge for a mate who, seeing Majan so gentle with is keeper, had jumped into his pen and roaringly confronted him had ended up being eaten. Now, in the middle of the night, aid worker Rabia (Shereen Martineau), who is trying to find out what has happened to two of her workers, is ordered to meet an official from the Department of Justice outside his pen. Trained to abide by UN rules of operation she not only finds out what has happened to her personnel but is trapped into a horrible complicity. Nabil Elouahabi achieves an icy image of self-righteous vindictiveness and sadism as the Taliban civil servant.

Part 3: Enduring Freedom

Ben Ockrent's Honey presents negotiations between Ahmad Shah Massoud, Defence Minister of the Afghan Northern Alliance, and CIA operative Gary Schroen under the direction of US Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia Robin Raphael. The US is trying to buy back the thousands of shoulder-fired ground-to-air Stinger missiles which they had distributed through the SIS and wants Massoud to surrender the few he has and collect others from Alliance warlords. He is promised sweetners but he wants honey now, real support against the Taliban (whom the SIS have equipped with Stingers too) and al-Quaeda.

In 2001, two days before the attack on the twin towers, we are in a room with Massoud (Daniel Rabin, who seems cast as all the leaders who might have succeeded but to whom the US failed to give sufficient backing) and Massood Kahlili, his ambassador to India (Vincent Ebrahim, excellent in a role that continues to take the story further). Massoud is eager to start filming with a television news team whom he hopes will gain him much needed exposure and support - but the interviewer turns out to be a suicide bomber.

The Night is Darkest Before the Dawn by Abi Morgan concerns itself with women's place in Afghan society. Teacher Huma (Shereen Martineau) wants her brother-in-law (Rabin again in another strong performance) to let his daughter to attend the school she will set up if she can raise sufficient pupils to get US charity funding. Her urgency is set against the father's fear of the Taliban and his need of his daughter's labour for her brothers have all been killed. It also opens up a private story that helps to make this one of the most touching of these plays, highlights the huge losses that tribespeople and farmers have suffered, their increased dependence on the opium trade and, through a crass American from the charity (Daniel Betts), suggests how very little it takes to raise personal awareness.

On the Side of the Angels by Richard Bean takes a different look at NGOs and their operation as Jemma Redgrave's Jackie tries to persuade her colleagues in Croydon that they need to present realistic issues not just emotive images. She knows the problems on the ground: don't send a female worker out, for instance, unless you have a male family member to accompany her for she will not be able to operate among the people. This is a striking portrait of a pragmatist who knows exactly the constraints within which she has to operate, though fully aware of how far short of her own moral values are the decisions she is forced to make.

The sequence ends with Simon Stephen's Canopy of Stars which takes us right into the front line with a sergeant and a private (Tom McKay and Karl Davies) debating why they are there: one making a case for putting right wrongs, the other just there to support his mates. There is some clear thinking going on but in a second scene we see what a heavy toll such service takes in another confrontation between the Sergeant and his wife (Cloudia Swann) and a different argument about whether he should be in Afghanistan.

Directors Nicholas Kent and Indhu Rubasingham have done a splendid job on this mammoth undertaking producing not just a fascinating and important political document but a vibrant piece of theatre. One not to miss if you can help it.

You can experience the Great Game: Afghanistan on certain days in a single span starting at 11.30 am or see each of the three parts on different nights. If you have to choose just one I would suggest Part 3: Enduring Freedom. It is the one that shows most insight into the current situation, but you'll miss gaining an understanding of how we got there. American readers will get a chance to see these plays after the Tricycle run if they can make any of the four dates across the States.

The three parts run in repertoire at the Tricycle until 29th August 2010 and then tour the United States playing 15th - 26th September in the Shakespeare Theatre at the Harman, Washington DC; 29th September - 17th October Guthrie Theatre at the Maguire Proscenium, Minneapolis; 22nd October - 7th November Berkeley Repertory Theatre at the Rhoda Theatre, Berkeley, San Francisco and 1st - 19th December The Public Theatre at the Skirball, New York.

Howard Loxton