The Great Game: Afghanistan
nytheatre.com review by David Gordon
December 5, 2010
Afghanistan. A landlocked central Asian country approximately the size of France…consisting largely of impassable high mountain chains and baking desert. Most of the population lives in circumstances which have not changed since the middle ages.
Those words begin a piece by David Edgar called Black Tulips, one of twelve playlet entries in the Tricycle Theatre’s cycle The Great Game: Afghanistan, now on the last leg of an American tour at the Skirball Center, courtesy of The Public Theater. This mammoth, day-long, meticulously acted three-parter is probably the most fascinating production currently in town.
Over the course of seven hours (twelve, if you count lunch and dinner breaks on marathon days) The Great Game, directed by Nicolas Kent and Indhu Rubasingham, is a history of foreign involvement in Afghanistan from 1842 to the present. Part 1 (1842 – 1930) deals with the British and Russian empires; part II (1979-1996) with the rise of Communism, the Mujahideen, and the Taliban; part III (1996-2010) with 9/11, Operation Enduring Freedom, and the aftermath of war on the soldiers.
The Tricycle, based in London, has made a name for itself with its highly charged plays, constructed using transcripts of various tribunals. The idea to commission a piece about Afghanistan, Kent notes in the program, came from his own lack of knowledge about the country’s history and the fact that there was “very little reporting and almost no artistic response except a handful of novels, including the work of Khaled Hosseini.” He commissioned twelve British and American playwrights to create short works, and one Iranian writer, Siba Shakib, to create some short monologues. Kent mentions in his note that there was “little success” in finding writers from “the sub-continent.”
For those of us who are used to seeing political plays that either deal with America or Israel, The Great Game has a lot to offer. The plays are meticulously researched, if, at roughly a half-hour a piece, a bit too long. This is notable in the first third, packed with information completely new to me, like the creation of Durand’s Line in 1893, though the plays, very well acted, are inert history lessons.
The middle third packs the most dramatic punch. It begins with Edgar’s extraordinary Black Tulips, which details the USSR’s involvement in the country through military briefings to soldiers, told backwards, from 1987 to 1981. This is followed by a fascinating imagined meeting, created by David Grieg, between a female writer and the assassinated former Afghan president Najibullah. Closing the second portion is the most unsettling piece in the whole production, Colin Teevan’s The Lion of Kabul, centering on the search for two missing UN aid workers, the Taliban’s second-class treatment of women, and a hungry lion.
We are most familiar with the material in the last chunk, which, in an extraordinary piece of theatricality, segues from the assassination of Ahmad Shah Massoud (in a play by Ben Ockrent) to September 11. Abi Morgan’s The Night is Darkest Before the Dawn is a look at the attempt to educate women in Kandahar, while Richard Bean’s startling On the Side of the Angels takes a look at the involvement of non-government organizations and workers’ reactions to common practices, like the betrothals of 10-year-old girls to far older men. Here the plays go on a bit too long, as well, and the final piece, a look at what happens when soldiers return home, doesn’t make much of an impact.
If you can only attend one portion, I’d recommend the second, though each contains its share of beautifully crafted performances, with every actor playing upwards of five or six roles. Some of them, including Jemma Redgrave (Corin’s daughter; Vanessa and Lynn’s niece), Shereen Martineau, Daniel Betts, Daniel Rabin, and Rick Warden, are so mesmerizing as they lose themselves in each role that you cannot look away. Audience members should note that the production contains a multitude of very sudden loud noises, including bombs dropping and gun shots.
One must once again hand it to The Public, for presenting some of the most challenging, thought-provoking, and polarizing theatre in New York this year, from this to The Merchant of Venice to In the Wake. We should be very grateful that they afforded us these opportunities, whether we liked them or not.