The Great Game - Afghanistan
Tricycle Theatre Spring-Summer 2009; Summer 2010
The tiny Tricycle Theatre in north London has a history of commitment to relevant political theatre, and their current project, while far more ambitious than anything they've done before, is a logical extension of their previous work.
Artistic Director Nicolas Kent commissioned new one-act plays from a dozen writers, all on some period or aspect of Afghan history, and now offers them in three rotating programmes. The plays are presented in order of their historical subjects, with the first evening devoted to the 19th and early 20th centuries, the second to the years of the Soviet-Afghan war, and the third to more current events.
Inevitably, the recurring subject is culture clash, with the West either presumptuously or naively misunderstanding Afghan culture and history, with results that are sometimes dramatically ironic but almost always historically disastrous.
And inevitably, the quality and theatrical effectiveness of the plays vary considerably. None is a masterpiece or even what you'd call a small gem, and all suffer under the burden of having to incorporate loads of historical information into the drama.
Still, each evening has a couple of plays that manage to be both enlightening and dramatically involving.
Colin Teevan's The Lion of Kabul is one of the most chilling of the short plays, as a female UN aid worker attempts a rational discussion with a Taliban leader, only to discover that his absolute confidence in the rightness of his world view makes it impossible.
In Richard Bean's On The Side Of The Angels another aid worker manages to broker a bit of social justice in an Afghan village, but the terms acceptable to the parties involved offend his Western values so much that he has to intervene with inevitably tragic results.
Simon Stephens' Canopy Of Stars tells a familiar story but tells it well, as a British soldier who spends his time in Afghanistan griping finds himself even more out of his element back home and yearns to return.
Some writers take the bemused stance of ironic distance, while still acknowledging an underlying tragedy.
Ron Hutchinson's Durand's Line looks at the 19th-century British imposition of border lines defining Afghanistan and sees that the impulse was simultaneously practical (Britain wanted a buffer state between India and Russia), dangerous (The lines cut right through natural communities and thrust together others with nothing in common), and even superstitious, betraying an almost totemistic faith that arbitrary lines on a map could change reality.
David Edgar's Black Tulips summarises the Soviet experience in a series of military briefings, with the irony of presenting them in reverse historical order, battle-weary cynicism giving way to callow assurance and optimism.
Amit Gupta's Campaign finds one of the cleverest ways of combining theatre and history lesson, as a 21st-century British politician quizzes a historian, searching for facts he can then spin into justification for declaring the present mission a success and bringing the boys home.
The plays are individually directed, with Nicolas Kent and Indhu Rabasingham handling the majority between them, and the same fifteen actors appear in all three evenings.
I don't think I could recommend the entire cycle to any but the most dedicated students of Afghan history, and there really isn't much to choose among the three evenings, each having a mix of stronger and weaker plays, though perhaps the third, with its contemporary focus and the Bean and Stephens plays, is the most accessible.
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The Great Game - Tricycle Theatre 2009