'The Great Game: Afghanistan'

There's much to absorb here, some of it fascinating and powerful.

Originally commissioned in 2008 by London’s Tricycle Theater a.d. Nicolas Kent, the nearly 20 one-acts that comprise three-part, eight-hour cycle “The Great Game: Afghanistan” make for a curious theatrical experience. There’s much to absorb here, some of it fascinating and powerful. But the miscellaneous nature of authorial voices and approaches, combined with the lack of any overall arc beyond rough chronological progress, make this not so much epic theater as a very long string of one-offs that emerges as something less than the sum of its parts.

Near the end of its short U.S. tour (the Public is next), Tricycle’s touring production struggled in Minneapolis and Washington, D.C., but has hit a mother lode in politically hyperconscious Berkeley, Calif. — its run registered the third highest advance sale in Berkeley Rep’s 42-year history.

Central theme running through the whole enterprise is that Afghanistan, innately unstable as the arbitrary conjoining of areas controlled by fiercely independent warlords, has for nearly two centuries been subject to intrusion by one foreign (mostly Western) power after another. Whether the intent is outright colonialism (as in 80 years of wobbly British rule) or ostensible assistance, the effect has been to perpetually undo peace, progress and consistency of self-governance at the whims of whatever new plan outsiders devise to “fix” the nation.

Penned by a wide range of contemporary Brit playwrights, the works here often work best when most ambitious, offering a full meal in content terms rather than a merely clever or illustrative vignette.

Among the best is David Edgar’s “Black Tulips,” a series of briefings for newly arrived U.S.S.R. soldiers between 1981 and 1987 — their reverse order offering ironic commentary on diminishing Soviet hopes of stabilizing the country.

The often impassable gulf between different cultural sensibilities dominates several pieces. Richard Bean’s “On the Side of the Angels” finds two U.K. aide workers, one pragmatic (Jemma Redgrave), another morally idealistic (frequent standout Tom McKay), helping to negotiate a 2002 territorial dispute whose settlement involves trading preadolescent brides.

In Colin Teevan’s “The Lion of Kabul,” another aide worker (Shereen Martineau) seeks justice for slain colleagues — but that meted out is more gruesome than she can handle. Addressing her liberal pieties, a local says: “Is it not our ‘human right’ to reject your ‘freedom’? …. We don’t want to be like you. We want to be like Allah.” Amit Gupta’s “Campaign” has a politely appalled Pakistani scholar sold the latest ill-conceived U.S.-U.K. attempt at propagandizing Afghanis into compliance with yet another policy wind change.

Some segments are overly didactic or schematic, as in a forced “interview” between a cringingly sensitive journo (Redgrave) and pro-communist President Najibullah (Daniel Rabin) that takes place entirely in her head. British colonial days are stereotypically imagined in early pieces by Stephen Jeffreys and Ron Hutchinson.

Largely focused on the U.K.’s role in this ongoing mess, the cycle ends on a strong note with Simon Stephens’ “Canopy of Stars.”

An English sergeant (McKay) who’s brashly cynical in the field turns surprisingly defensive of his mission during a rare, unhappy visit home to the wife (Cloudia Swann) who thinks the West only makes things worse in Afghanistan.

These one-acts are all over the map, including several recitations of “Verbatim” quotes by current real-life figures from a Taliban commander to Hillary Clinton. They’re unified somewhat by expert ensemble thesping and Pamela Howard’s rather plain set, which is dominated by a historical mural eventually defaced by the Taliban.

An educational, interesting, often compelling experiment, “The Great Game” nonetheless suffers throughout from its piecemeal nature — eight hours is too long for any entertainment to go without the cumulative impact of a more cohesive overall viewpoint or narrative shape.

The Great Game: Afghanistan

Berkeley Rep, Berkeley; 650 seats; $73 top

Production

A Berkeley Repertory Theater presentation of a Tricycle Theater production in three parts and six acts. Written by Richard Bean, Lee Blessing, David Edgar, David Greig, Amit Gupta, Ron Hutchinson, Stephen Jeffreys, Abi Morgan, Ben Ockrent, Siba Shakib, Simon Stephens, Colin Teevan, Joy Wilkinson. Directed by Nicolas Kent, Indhu Rubasingham, Rachel Grunwald.

Creative

Project designer, Pamela Howard; lighting, David I. Taylor, based on original lighting by James Farncomb; costumes, Sydney Florence; sound, Tom Lishman; technical director/production stage manager, Bartolo Cannizzaro. Opened, reviewed Oct. 22, 2010. Total running time: 7 HOURS, 50 MIN.

Cast

With: Vincent Ebrahim, Nabil Elouahabi, Daniel Rabin, Danny Rahim, Raad Rawi, Jemma Redgrave, Daniel Betts, Tom McKay, Rick Warden, Karl Davies, Shereen Martineau, Michael Cochrane, Cloudia Swann, Sheena Bhattessa.
Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more