Theater preview of 'The Great Game: Afghanistan' at Harman Center

End 'Game': Daniel Betts in Abi Morgan's "The Night Is Darkest Before Dawn," a play in the last part of the U.K. trilogy being staged through Sept. 26.
End 'Game': Daniel Betts in Abi Morgan's "The Night Is Darkest Before Dawn," a play in the last part of the U.K. trilogy being staged through Sept. 26. (John Haynes - Shakespeare Theater Company)
By Nelson Pressley
Thursday, September 16, 2010

Three years ago Nicolas Kent observed that artists in England and the United States weren't creating much about the war in Afghanistan. As the artistic director of what is often regarded as London's leading political theater, Kent knew he could commission a play on the topic.

"But one play wouldn't really raise a debate," Kent says.

So he recruited a coalition of willing playwrights whose dozen dramas are playing together as "The Great Game: Afghanistan," a three-part event that rolled into the Shakespeare Theatre Company's Harman Center Wednesday night, launching a limited U.S. tour.

Kent's gambit turned out to be a hit last year for his Tricycle Theatre, a troupe that produces musicals and conventional plays but has become best known for "verbatim" dramas -- civic-minded pieces with dialogue drawn from first-hand interviews. ("Guantánamo: Honor Bound to Defend Freedom" came from Tricycle; so did the antic "The 39 Steps.")

"The Great Game," which surveys Western involvement in Afghanistan from the early 19th century through the Soviet invasion in the 1980s and this decade's war, is stitched together by verbatim material that evolves with the headlines. This summer's London revival of the show even included an exclusive interview with U.S. Gen. Stanley McChrystal conducted just four days before his firing in June.

The majority of "The Great Game," though -- the title refers to the 19th-century jostling between Russia and the British for control of the region -- is the collection of roughly half-hour plays. They have been molded into a trilogy: Part I is "Invasions and Independence," covering 1842 through the 1920s, Part II is "Communism, The Mujahideen & The Taliban," 1979-1996, and Part III is "Enduring Freedom," from before Sept. 11, 2001, to the present day. Each evening can be viewed on its own, though audiences can take in the whole sequence on marathon days the next two weekends.

The dramatists behind this unusual theatrical chronicle largely worked in isolation from one another. "We met in the bar after the first preview," cracks Ron Hutchinson, an Irish-born writer who has lived in Los Angeles for three decades.

Lee Blessing -- the lone American represented in the version of "The Great Game" touring the United States (another play was also swapped out, and the verbatim material changes all the time) -- didn't even enjoy that much contact. When interest arose in producing U.S. writer J.T. Rogers's contribution, "Blood and Gifts," on its own at London's National Theatre (where it's now playing), Blessing was brought in to write a replacement for Rogers's 1980s CIA-Mujahideen piece. Blessing, speaking last week from Brooklyn, hasn't seen "The Great Game" yet, and won't until the tour reaches the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis next month. "Ironically," says Blessing, who joined the team last February, "the only writer I knew was J.T."

Matching era with talent

Certain writers seemed natural for particular slots, so Kent matched available talent with appropriate periods. "I think Nick kind of sliced the salami," Hutchinson says from L.A. of the assignment process. " 'Who wants to deal with the Russian invasion, put your hand up? American do-gooder NGOs getting in over their heads?' " Hutchinson, whose "Durand's Line" chronicles the 1893 border agreement between Afghanistan and what is now Pakistan, says, "I got late to the party."

Stephen Jeffreys, writer of the play (and the 2005 Johnny Depp film) "The Libertine," has a reputation for historical work. "He's famous for it," offers fellow playwright Joy Wilkinson. Thus Jeffreys was logical to write the opener, set in 1842 and dealing with the end of what the British refer to as the First Afghan War.

Wilkinson and Ben Ockrent, speaking on different days from London, said they felt like less inevitable candidates, in part because of their comparative youth. "I did feel slightly out of my league in terms of experience," the 27-year-old Ockrent says. Wilkinson uses the term "daunting" to describe the mission.

Wilkinson's script, "Now Is the Time," comes in the second part of the trilogy and deals with modernization led by a progressive Afghan king in the 1920s that eventually "just all came unstuck."

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