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A CurtainUp London London Review
The Great Game

Have you an enemy? Of course, I have a cousin.— Afghan proverb quoted in Black Tulips
The Great Game
Cast in The Lion of Kabul
(Photo: John Haynes)
Divided into three parts, each of four plays, which can take a whole day or be seen over three evenings or in a combination of matinees and evenings, The Great Game immerses us in Afghanistan. The Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn is known for its political plays, often using verbatim transcripts to recreate recent political events. A dozen playwrights have each contributed a play to this cycle which covers the history of the area up to the present day where we hear with sad frequency of the death of British soldiers in the area. The Great Game is the term used to describe the competition between Great Britain and Russia for power and influence in Central Asia which dates back to the nineteenth century when Britain wanted to protect her valuable empire in India.

Part I 1842-1930 Invasions and Independence is the history of the area and helps us understand some of the destabilizing actions taken in what was thought of as being in the interests of the British Empire. Stephen Jeffrey's play Bugles at the Gates of Jalalabad kicks off with the tale of a disastrous massacre of British troops and camp followers. We hear the story through the doughty wife of a General, Lady Florentia Sale (Jemma Redgrave), who was held hostage in Kabul after the departure of the British, and several red coated soldiers who question effectively why and how a formerly peaceful area became so unsafe for the British.

The impressive Durand's Line by Ron Hutchinson looks at the arbitrary geographical boundaries set in 1893 by the British India Foreign Minister, Sir Henry Mortimer Durand (Michael Cochrane), dividing the Pashtun homelands between India and Afghanistan in some territorial horse trading. The Amir Abdur Rahman (Paul Bhattacharjee) expresses his reservations about these lines on the map but is ignored.

Amit Gupta's play Campaign is a witty modern day discussion between an Oxford University professor of Afghani history (Paul Bhattacharjee) and a terribly patronizing Member of Parliament (Tom McKay) who is charged with briefing the Minister. This play brims over with political expediency.

Finally in this section is Joy Wilkinson's awkward Now Is the Time. It has some influential Afghan political reformers Mahmud Tarzi, the Foreign Minister (Vincent Ebrahim), his daughter Queen Soraya (Jemina Rooper) and her husband the King, Amanullah Khan stranded north of Kabul in 1929 where their car has broken down.

Part II 1979 — 1996 Communism, the Mujahideen and the Taliban looks at more recent history leading up to the present day conflict. David Edgar's brilliant play Black Tulips is an exposition of the involvement of the USSR backwards from 1987 to the entry into Afghanistan of the Soviet 40th Army in 1979 through the voice of the briefings given to newly arrived Russian soldiers sent to Afghanistan. The reverse timing is fascinating.

JT Rogers' excellent Blood and Gifts shows the influence of the USA in funding anti-communist warlords and Islamic militants through the Pakistani Intelligence Services to secure the withdrawal of the Soviets. Miniskirts of Kabul by David Greig is an imaginary meeting between a Western writer (Jemina Rooper) and the Communist ex-President Najibullah (Ramon Tikaram) who is under house arrest as she asks about his reforms and the reactionary forces which opposed him. He is later murdered. Despite the unlikely scenario, Greig's play works well with two good performances. Finally in this section is Colin Teevan's play The Lion of Kabul where Rabia (Lolita Chakrabarti) the female Director of Operations of an United Nations agency comes up against the Taliban treatment of women as second class citizens, Sharia law and terrible violence. This play is disturbing and should come with a government health warning.

Part III 1996 - 2009 Enduring Freedom opens with Ben Ockrent's Honey where we see the Taliban painting over the backdrop in the way in which the famous murals were destroyed in Afghanistan by this barbaric regime. A CIA agent discusses the global terrorism centred on Afghanistan and the misguided part they have played in initially funding Islamist fundamentalists leading up to 9/11.

Abi Morgan's The Night is Darkest Before the Dawn is as oppressive as the regime and shows the terrible position of women under the Taliban. Richard Bean's On the Side of the Angels is a lively and often witty debate about the NGOs (Non government organizations) and Charities' non-judgmental involvement in Afghanistan as they debate what their role should be in the light of the production of opium and the practice of girls being married at 10 years of age. Finally Simon Stephens' Canopy of Stars follows a British soldier (Tom McKay), from Afghanistan back home to Manchester, where he defends the role the British army play in Afghanistan to his wife (Jemina Rooper) who doesn't want her husband to go away or be in danger and who thinks the army being there is futile.

The twelve plays also have some interspersed monologues or duologues by Siba Shakib and an edited Verbatim account of statements by advisors to diplomats and politicians including a contributor to Obama's policy on Afghanistan. I came away much wiser about the underlying events leading up to the problems today and clear that there is no easy solution. If troops leave the area, that too will have repercussions, for instance for girls who want to be educated. The plays do not shy away from the terrible cruelty of the Taliban.

The ensemble cast put in sterling work in creating so many different characters, although on occasions some accents waver. Just two directors, Nicolas Kent and Indhu Rubasingham direct the whole cycle. It is inevitable that with so many playwrights, it is patchy in places, some plays will work better than others, but the whole is a fascinating, if at times harrowing, experiment at the interface of politics and drama. These plays fit into a programme at The Tricycle over the next two months of film and discussions about Afghanistan.

The Great Game
Written by Stephen Jeffreys, Ron Hutchinson, Amit Gupta, Joy Wilkinson, David Edgar, JT Rogers, David Greig, Colin Teevan, Ben Ockrent, Abi Morgan, Richard Bean, Simon Stephens.
Directed by Nicolas Kent and Indhu Rubasingham

With: Sagar Arya, Daniel Betts, Paul Bhattacharjee, Sheena Bhattessa, Lolita Chakrabarti, Michael Cochrane, Nabil Elouahabi, Vincent Ebrahim, Tom McKay, Danny Rahim, Jemma Redgrave, Jemima Rooper, Hugh skinner, Ramon Tikaram, Rick Warden
Assistant Director: Rachel Grunwald
Design: Pamela Howard and Miriam Nabarro
Lighting: James Farncombe
Sound: Tom Lishman
Running times:
Part I Two hours 5 minutes with an interval
Part II Two hours 30 minutes with an interval
Part III Two hours 30 minutes with an interval
Box Office: 020 7328 1000
Booking to 14th June 2009
The plays are published by Oberon Modern Plays in one volume at 9.99 The Great Game Afghanistan
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 24th April 2009 performance at the Tricycle, Kilburn High Road, London NW6 (Tube: Kilburn)

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