Tom McKay takes aim in “The Great Game: Afghanistan” at Berkeley Rep.
Photo by John Haynes
The Great Game: Afghanistan
By Richard Bean, Lee Blessing, David Edgar, David Greig, Amit Gupta, Ron Hutchinson, Stephen Jeffreys, Abi Morgan, Ben Ockrent, Siba Shakib, Simon Stephens, Colin Teevan, Naomi Wallace and Joy Wilkinson
Directed by Nicolas Kent and Indhu Rubasingham
Produced by Tricycle Theatre, London
Berkeley Rep (West Coast premiere)
Oct. 22-Nov. 7, 2010
(See video clip below.)
Full disclosure: I only saw Part One of “The Great Game: Afghanistan.” But, lest you chide my laziness, Part One was composed of seven scenes by six different authors. It begins, not surprisingly, with a gunshot. How it ends, I cannot tell you because I decided that I am too old for marathons but, in the larger sense, it is still going on.
Tricycle Theatre, an innovative British troupe, is known for being political. Three years ago, its artistic director, Nicolas Kent, was inspired by the nightly news to commission an eight-hour trilogy, consisting of 12 brief plays, on the subject of Afghanistan and a struggle to control that uncontrollable country that began in 1839 and continues to this day. After its initial British run the project moved across the pond, where its stops have included Washington D.C. (Shakespeare Theatre), Minneapolis (The Guthrie), New York City (The Public Theater) and, for two weeks only, Berkeley Rep. The plays are presented in a pick-and-choose format with marathon presentations of all three parts (with meal breaks in between) on weekends and one at a time on weeknights.
It’s heavy stuff but marvelously entertaining, with enough comic touches to lighten the load. The acting, by an ensemble of 14 doing yeoman duty (David Edgar’s segment, “Black Tulips” utilizes 12; some others are monologues and duologues), is impeccable. Characterization is spotty but, in fairness, it’s hard to flesh out characters in a 15-minute or half-hour play. Yes, there are stereotypes: the noble, oppressed Afghan peasant; the uptight British bureaucrat; the clueless American – but there are moments of deep insight as well. Several of the segments in the trilogy are titled “Verbatim” and, rather than being written by playwrights, use the actual words of journalists, officers, observers, the NATO commander and people like General McChrystal and Hillary Clinton to stunning effect.
Part One included one such “Verbatim,” which left one with a feeling of profound futility. “Are we in our ninth year on Afghanistan or are we on our first year for the ninth time?” asks a member of Gen. McChrystal’s staff. Siba Shakib’s “Monologue,” which begins Part One with that aforementioned gunshot, involves a confrontation with an Afghan painter (Vincent Ebrahim) and members of the Taliban. It also involves a confrontation with what Afghanistan once was and what it has become and serves as a kind of an introduction to what will follow.
The powerful “Bugles at the Gates of Jalalabad” by Stephen Jeffreys tells the tale of 16,000 British soldiers, their families, servants and camp followers who were massacred on a retreat from Kabul in 1842. It is a back-and-forth recitation of horror and ineptitude told by a kind of Greek chorus of British buglers and one woman, the famous Lady Sale (Jemma Redgrave) who survived many months of Afghan imprisonment and returned home to write a book about it. The next part, “Duologue,” again by Shakib, is weak tea in comparison. It tells the story of Malalai (Shereen Martineau), a brave Afghan woman who, when the standard-bearer fell in battle, used her voice and her veil to rally the troops. This happened in 1880 and Malalai became a national heroine.
Ron Hutchinson’s “Durand’s Line” is funny, poetic and poignant as it shows how the politicians, led by Sir Henry Mortimer Durand, India’s foreign minister from 1885-94 (Michael Cochrane), try to convince the Amir of Afghanistan (Raad Rawi) to formalize the borders of his country. “These are only lines on paper, after all,” sneers the Amir. “A thing has to be defined. That’s what this whole century has been about!” counters Sir Henry. P.S. Durand’s line was drawn, dividing the Pashtun homeland of Waziristan and causing no end of tribal trouble to this day.
“Campaign” by Amit Gupta, thrusts us back into the present day as a somewhat slimy British aide (Tom McKay) winds a professor who is an Afghan authority (Rawl again) up in official double-speak. Very funny, it has sinister undertones, dealing with the coalition exit strategy. “Now Is the Time,” Joy Wilkinson’s somewhat talky and melodramatic piece about the exile of Afghan ruler Amanullah Khan (Daniel Rabin) was a weaker link in the chain of playlets.
But the effect definitely is cumulative. Unfortunately, these are all I had time to see. A more tenacious theatergoer will have an even richer experience. But, better hurry. In two weeks “The Great Game,” which takes its name from Rudyard Kipling’s description of the struggle between Britain and Russia for the land, power and soul of Afghanistan, will have moved on. Now that the struggle has become ours as well, I can’t think of anything more important to do.