Theater Review

'Great Game: Afghanistan' takes an exhaustive look at a much fought-over land

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 20, 2010

Like Pilates, fiber and meditation, "The Great Game: Afghanistan" is indisputably good for you. A 7-hour 15-minute cataloguing of the mostly self-serving attentions that the superpowers have lavished on this proud, fractious and ultimately unconquerable land, the proceedings in Sidney Harman Hall are an admirably balanced attempt to distill geopolitical complexities into a marathon theater event.

A dozen dramatists have contributed playlets to the production from London's Tricycle Theatre, which is presented in three installments, a separate one each night (and all presented on weekend days) with each part focusing on a different historical period -- and foreign invader. Part 1 surveys the Anglo-Afghan wars of the 19th century; Part 2 concerns the Soviet incursion of the 1980s; and Part 3 takes us up to the minute, with the U.S.-led war sparked by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

As with any smorgasbord, this one offers spicy delicacies as well as blander plates. So if you approach the experience with the knowledge that some of it -- maybe even most of it -- will be less than a revelation, you'll be prepared to look for the subtler strands of storytelling and the finer points of argument that do make it worthwhile. Most of us know going in, for example, that foreign military powers seeking to impose their idea of order on Afghanistan have had their expectations painfully, even catastrophically, dashed time and again.

We know very well, too, that the country's a quagmire. "Does it not feel you are fighting the wind?" an Afghan character asks a British soldier of the 1840s in Part 1's first play, Stephen Jeffreys's "Bugles at the Gates of Jalalabad." Futility is a theme echoing constantly in the plays: The unspoken questions seem to be, why the endlessly intense competition for this rugged, feudal landscape, and why the same mistakes over and over? They reverberate to the last moments of the last play in Part 3, Simon Stephens's "Canopy of Stars," in which a British housewife in 2010 sputters her fury at her husband, a soldier just back from Afghanistan who angrily if inarticulately rejects her view that the war is a tragic waste.

The whole chronicle ends with an unmovable man and a seething woman refusing to yield any ground at all. A brutal stalemate. The bitter condition of Afghanistan itself, trapped in an eternal vice, under excruciating pressure from intractable forces.

That Tricycle devoted so much energy to the contradictions of Afghanistan, and Shakespeare Theatre Company agreed to host "The Great Game" as it embarks on a multi-city American tour, may be symbolically as important as anything we glean intellectually or emotionally from the plays. You emerge after seven-plus hours almost feeling, as after voting, that you've satisfied a civic responsibility. The half-hour allotted to each play militates against developing characters of much depth, so there's no finely textured melding of East and West, as there was in parts of Tony Kushner's 2001 Afghan play, "Homebody/Kabul." So our interest here is carried along by the sheer multiplicity of voices, and how each piece might fit into the larger historical puzzle.

The diplomatic air of a broadly conceived symposium does hover at times in Harman Hall. We could do without, for example, some of the brief interludes between playlets, in which verbatim remarks are recited by actors impersonating government functionaries and military leaders and figures like Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. Other unifying aspects of the production are more successful, such as Pamela Howard's mural "500 Years of Afghanistan," which frames the open stage for much of the show. The Taliban's hostility to art plays a role here, in a running series of short scenes by Siba Shakib cleverly woven into the production.

The plays, elicited chiefly from the ranks of British writers, lean more than anything toward journalistic naturalism. One could have wished that more of them absorbed the acidic theatricality of David Edgar's "Black Tulips," the cycle's most skillfully composed piece and the one that leads off Part 2. It unfolds as a series of briefings of new Soviet army recruits in Afghanistan by their superior officers. The twist is we are going backward in time in the Soviets' disastrous invasion, so that the morale-building talks sound ever sillier, ever more emblematic of the Russians' hubris.

As directed by Nicolas Kent, "Black Tulips" also features some of the best acting, in particular Rick Warden as an average bloke giving his fellow conscripts the skinny on surviving in a nation of minefields, and Shereen Martineau, playing a Russian-Afghan interpreter who's not above tailoring meaning to her listeners' biases.

Most of the pieces treat their subjects more reverently. In works like Ben Ockrent's "Honey," an account of the 2001 assassination of the Afghan Defense Minister Ahmad Shah Massoud, and Joy Wilkinson's "Now Is the Time," which details a moment in the flight by car of a deposed Afghan king in 1929, there are straightforward evocations of the nation's turbulent history. They're edifying and staged with an apt sobriety by Kent (Indhu Rubasingham and Rachel Grunwald are the other able directors). But they're essentially embellished reportage.

More piquant is Amit Gupta's "Campaign," wherein a Pakistani academic (Raad Rawi) is invited to the Foreign Office in London to reflect on a ludicrous effort to win Central Asian hearts and minds. And in a more unsettling vein, Colin Teevan's "The Lion of Kabul" proves a highly watchable slice of blood-soaked life under the Taliban. Set at Kabul's zoo, the play concerns a macabre administration of justice, abetted by the king of the jungle.

Impatient CIA agents, imperious British civil servants, beleaguered Afghan tribeswomen, altruistic Western aid workers and cunning Pakistani bureaucrats all wander across the teeming and volatile canvas Tricycle creates. It's exhaustive and at times overly tilted toward instruction. But "The Great Game" remains a desirable exercise for anyone who thinks about the world's have-nots, and what the haves are doing to them.

The Great Game: Afghanistan,

by the playwrights of Tricycle Theatre. Directed by Nicolas Kent, Indhu Rubasingham. Assistant director, Rachel Grunwald; sets and costumes, Pamela Howard and Miriam Nabarro; lighting, David I. Taylor and James Farncombe; sound, Tom Lishman. With Jemma Redgrave, Danny Rahim, Vincent Ebrahim, Daniel Rabin, Cloudia Swann, Daniel Betts, Michael Cochrane. In three parts; Part 1 runs about 2 hours 15 minutes, Parts 2 and 3 each run about 2 1/2 hours. Through Sept. 25 at Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F St. NW. Call 202-547-1122 or visit

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