Originally published December 8, 2010
Before she plays Hillary Clinton, but after her role as the snooty wife of a 19th century British general whose army was massacred in Afghanistan, Jemma Redgrave – fourth generation member of the acting Redgraves – is a writer interviewing the deposed Communist president of Afghanistan in “Miniskirts of Kabul,”one of the 19 works of theater – depicting amirs and kings, imperialists and CIA operatives, soldiers and tribesmen — in the ambitious theatrical marathon “The Great Game: Afghanistan.”
“I want to find out about you,” she tells President Mohammed Najibullah (Daniel Rabin)
“ Read a book,” he replies.
“I have read books but the books leave me with questions.”
The biggest question for “The
Great Game” is whether this extraordinary theatrical event answers questions that books cannot.
There actually are more than a dozen books about Afghanistan for sale in the lobby of the NYU Skirball Center where “The Great Game,” a production of London’s Tricycle Theatre Company presented by the Public Theater, is running through December 19.
What the authors of those books have in common with the photographer whose memorable black-and-white pictures grace the walls, and with the vendors selling Afghan carpets and kites and jewelry, and the musician playing a stringed instrument called a rubab, is that they have been to Afghanistan.
The same cannot be said with certainty of any but one of the playwrights of “The Great Game.” They are mostly British, commissioned by Tricycle artistic director Nicolas Kent to put together dramas ranging chronologically from 1842 to the present. Does this matter? Do the skills of the dozen dramatists and 14 actors add something to the debate that would make up for a lack of expertise? Is the event satisfying theatrically, intellectually or politically?
Those were the questions I had when I arrived for the marathon, and, oddly, they were not fully answered when I left 11 hours later (The actual playing time is about seven hours with breaks in-between.) Much of “The Great Game: Afghanistan” is intelligent and informative. There are facts delivered that are intriguing and moments dramatized that are illuminating. The entire enterprise suggests ways in which theater can be harnessed to engage audiences in current events.
But it is hard to see “The Great Game” as a wholly-realized and fully integrated work of theater. Yes, there is a brilliance, perhaps a beauty, to the immersion approach: There is a sense of moment; the plays matter less individually; few theatergoers could completely dismiss something in which they have invested so much time and effort. Still, “The Great Game” is not a marathon like, say, Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America” or Horton Foote’s “The Orphans’ Home Cycle” or even Robert Schenkkan’s history lesson “The Kentucky Cycle” – not the epic vision of a singular imagination.
Twelve short plays are divvied up in three parts, each of the three parts with a separate admission (you can go to just one; go to all three on separate days, or see all three at once in one of the Saturday or Sunday marathons.) Most of the plays are crafted subtly and professionally, end with a small surprise, and last just long enough to impart some important information about Afghani culture or history or politics.
The first part, “1842-1930: Invasions and Independence” begins with a short prologue in which a Afghan is painting a huge historical mural when suddenly we hear a big bang – many such startling sounds occur throughout the marathon – and the Taliban enter and take him away, leaving the mural as a backdrop for most of what follows. We are brought then to 1842 and the play “Bugles At The Gates of Jalalabad” by Stephen Jeffreys, where four red-coated British buglers stand sentry, and tell us of the massacre of 16,000 of their countrymen in the first of three Anglo-Afghan Wars, the largest defeat in British military history. The buglers, among the few survivors, encounter an Afghan straggler, and scenes with him alternate with monologues from the wife of the British general (taken from the actual diary) who witnessed the carnage. Nearly a century of the history of Afghanistan, it turns out, is under the shadow of a competition between Great Britain and Russia for control of Central Asia, a struggle that Rudyard Kipling labeled “The Great Game.” In this and in many of the subsequent plays, the British are arrogant and ignorant, the Afghans are earnest or wily, and the audience is slipped historical facts in clever ways.
Part 2 takes us from 1979 to 1996 (“Communism, The Mujahideen and The Taliban”) and includes some of the strongest of the dramatic works, including “Miniskirts of Kabul” by David Greig (in which the character of the writer is imagining a conversation with President Najibullah) and “Black Tulips” by David Edgar, a clever series of military briefings by Soviet commanders for newly arrived conscripts in the long and unpopular Soviet war in Afghanistan that start with the latest and most desperate and go backwards in time to the most confident and delusional. Lee Blessing’s “Wood for the Fire” emphasizes the missed opportunity and wrong-headedness of the U.S.’s trust in the Pakistani security forces, which were allowed to funnel American funds and equipment to the Muslim guerrillas any way they saw fit without accountability. “The Lion of Kabul” by Colin Teevan presents a confrontation between a female, Muslim director of operations for a United Nations agency and a mullah of the Taliban, introducing us to the brutal logic of their regime.
Part 3, “1996-2010: Enduring Freedom,” is the most disappointing. It is difficult to follow, and, although it is the one part of the marathon in which an American audience can most be expected to be interested, it is shown primarily from a British perspective. In various ways, the plays question whether the foreign presence in Afghanistan — be it soldiers or aid workers — is making things better or worse.
“I think we do good, and simultaneously we do harm. Wherever we go, we take a virus,” an aid worker says in Richard Bean’s “On The Side of the Angels.” The play that begins the third part, “Honey” by Ben Ockrent, does offer a cursory look at the failed relationship over five years from 1996 to 2001 between American interests (embodied by a CIA operative who “looks like his dentist”) concerned only in recovering their Stinger Missiles, and those of the Afghan government hoping for aid in their fight against the Taliban. Afghan Defense Minister Ahmad Shah Massoud’s efforts end in defeat. The last image of the play is a projection of the planes attacking the World Trade Center.
Interspersed throughout the formal dramas in all three parts are “Verbatim” interludes, in which actors playing various key players in the current struggle deliver mini-monologues. While surely an effort to keep the event completely up-to-date, they are the weakest aspect of the program. We hear the kind of assertions that we would get on the Sunday morning broadcasts – General McChrystal is one of the characters, and what we hear is far from the informal assessment reprinted in Rolling Stone Magazine that got him fired, but rather the company line — and (unlike on CNN) there is no effort to pin down the accuracy or internal inconsistency of the comments. “We are committed to a strategic partnership with Afghanistan,” Hillary Clinton (Redgrave) says, and of course, since this is verbatim, no other character gets to ask her what that means.
For each of the three parts, ushers hand out a four-page brochure, “In Context,” offering an overview of the relevant history. Also accompanying “The Great Game” is a booklet on Afghanistan that is invaluable – indeed, some may see it as more valuable than the plays — in sorting out the time-line and the players in the country where the United States has been in a war for nine years.