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A CurtainUp Review
The Great Game

The country is a death trap for foreign armies.— Hendrickson to Dickenson, two British soldiers fighting in Afghanistan, in the first Afghan War in 1842.

It is easy to argue on the wisdom or folly of conduct after the catastrophe has taken place. —from the diary of Lady Sale, Jalalabad, January 13, 1842.
The Great Game
Tom McKay and Rick Warden in Tricycle Theater's production of The Great Game: Afghanistan (Bugles at the Gates of Jalalabad - by Stephen Jeffreys).
{Photo by John Haynes)
The Great Game is how soldiers and politicians in the 19th-century referred to the rivalries and wars between the British and Russian Empires in Central Asia. It is also the title of a theatrical tour de force created by Nicholas Kent for London's Tricycle Theatre that is now touring the United States. The Trike, as it is called, is known for its hard-hitting, thought-provoking work dealing with the most serious political issues of our day. The tour is sponsored by the British Council (

At the beginning of the 21st-century, while Iraq and sometimes Iran took center stage, Afghanistan was smoldering. That geo- political reality led Kent to invite twelve playwrights to write about the country's history and its wars from 1842 until today. Their plays, plus verbatim testimony and a few monologues and duologues add up to almost eight hours of performance given over three nights or in one day.

The order is chronological. Part One: 1842 - 1930: Invasions and Independence; Part Two (the best of the three groupings): 1979-1996, Communism, the Mujahideen & the Taliban; and Part Three: 1996-2010, Enduring Freedom.

The cumulative effect proves irrevocably that theater can be a catalyst for thought and discussion. Particularly as the dramatic marathon ends with a veteran of the current war in Afghanistan arguing that the presence of the West in Afghanistan will prevent mayhem and atrocities that could in the future be even worse than they are today and his wife who says the hell with it, come home. By that point, after all the history and the horrors have been explained and dramatized, it is still difficult to know who is right and who is wrong.

If all of this sounds like an intellectual and emotional workout, it is and if The Great Game were played with less text it would be even more effective. Not all the plays are good and some of the monologues belabor their point. Actors are called on to play many different characters so it is particularly discomforting that not all the cast is good. Actors Vincent Ebrahim and Raad Rawi push too hard in most of their roles. Daniel Betts, Tom McKay, Rick Warden, and particularly Jemma Redgrave, are superb. They show versatility, depth, compassion and even humor in their roles. (Yes, Ms. Redgrave does come from the theatrical dynasty that includes Vanessa, her aunt and the late Corin, her father).

Nicholas Kent and Indhu Rubasingham direct (separately). James Farncombe's lighting, particularly during the fall of Kabul, is extremely effective. Designers Pamela Howard and Miriam Nabarro created authentic-looking costumes and simple but evocative sets appropriate to each setting. But the hero of The Great Game's stagecraft is sound designer Tom Lishman, who has made the hostile and frightening environment that is Afghanistan terrifyingly real.

To read our London critic's review go here.

The Great Game: Afghanistan
Directors: Nicolas Kent and Indhu Rubasingham
Playwrights Part One— 1842-1930, Invasion & Independence: Monologue by Siba Shakib, Bugles at the Gates of Jalalabad, by Stephen Jeffreys; duologue by Siba Shakib; Durand's Line, by Ron Hutchinson; Verbatim, edited by Richard Norton-Taylor; Campaign by Amit Gupta; Now Is the Time, by Joy Wilkinson.

Playwrights Part Two— 1979-1996: Communism, the Mujahideen & the Taliban. Black Tulips, by David Elgar; monologue by Siba Shakib; Wood for the Fire, by Lee Blessing; Miniskirts of Kabul, by David Greig; duologue by Siba Shakib; The Lion of Kabul, by Colin Teevan.

Playwrights Part Three — 1996-2010: Enduring Freedom. Honey, by Ben Ockrent; The Night is Darkest Before the Dawn, by Abi Morgan; verbatim, edited by Richard Norton-Taylor; On the Side of the Angels, by Richard Bean; verbatim, edited by Richard Norton-Taylor; Canopy of Stars, by Simon Stephens.

Cast: Daniel Betts, Sheena Bhattessa, Michael Cochrane, Karl Davies, Vincent Ebrahim, Nabil Elouahabi, Shereen Martineau, Tom McKay, Daniel Rabin, Danny Rahim, Raad Rawi, Jemma Redgrave, Cloudia Swann, Rick Warden.

Project Designer: Pamela Howard
Original Lighting Designer: James Farncombe
Lighting for the US Tour: David I. Taylor
Sound Designer: Tom Lishman
Running time: approximately 2 hours and 30 minutes for each of the three parts.
Reviewed by Susan Davidson during the tour's stop at Harman Center, 610 F St., NW;; 202-547-3230 on September 22, 23, and 24

After completing the Washington performances, the tour moves on to the Guthrie in Minneapolis, September 29 to October 17; the Berkeley Rep, in Berkeley, October 22 to November 7; and New York's Public Theater, December 1 to 19, 2010.
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