London theater explores Afghanistan

Tricycle unveils cycle of place about country

How much do Westerners really know about Afghanistan?

It’s one of the most impenetrable and mysterious places in the contemporary world; and though, as President Obama’s recent policy decisions underline, it is a global crux point, the combined effect of ongoing political turmoil and Taliban-influenced repressiveness means this country of 34 million people remains, for many of us, a cipher.

London’s Tricycle Theater has stepped into that breach with “The Great Game,” a cycle of 12 short plays by British and American playwrights (running through June 14, alongside a festival of films and readings) that collectively hold up a prism to the past 170 years of Western engagement in Afghan politics and culture.

Being associated with fiction and escapism, theater may seem an unlikely medium to address this informational gap, but the project is the most elaborate extension yet of the Tricycle’s decade-long, groundbreaking contribution to the burgeoning field of fact-based theater (including “Guantanamo: Honor Bound to Defend Freedom,” which had an acclaimed New York run in 2004).

“The Great Game” goes beyond the theater’s previous efforts in its scope and historical reach: the plays are presented in three evening-long chunks or as marathons that occupy eight hours of viewing time. A remarkable 15-person ensemble perform all the plays, which are directed by Indhu Rubasingham, Rachel Grunwald and Tricycle a.d. Nicholas Kent.

The cycle certainly educates audiences about the history of modern Afghanistan, and presents a depressing but enlightening portrait of a land so riven with complex and deep-seated conflicts it’s hard to imagine how they can ever be unraveled.

A theme that persists throughout is the central role geography has played in shaping the country’s history and identity. In Stephen Jeffreys’ “Bugles at the Gates of Jalalabad,” we meet a regiment of soldiers during the First Afghan War in 1839-42, there to defend Britain’s prized colony, India, against Russia. Thanks to its unfortunate geographical position, Afghanistan becomes the battleground. In his witty “Durand’s Line,” set 50 years later, Ron Hutchinson dramatizes the negotiation over the creation of Afghanistan’s southern border between the British foreign minister (Michael Cochrane) and the Afghan Amir (Paul Bhattacharjee).

These and other early plays from this cycle, however intelligently researched and beautifully played, are suffused with post-imperial guilt: a typical portrait of the wise, ironic, cleverest-person-in-the-room Afghan emerges, alongside the righteous but doctrinaire (and obviously misled) Brit.

The cycle’s second section (covering roughly 1979-96) is the most engaging, because of the variety of subject matter and viewpoints displayed, and because the writers, by and large, move beyond stereotype.

American JT Rogers’ “Blood and Gifts” is among the most deeply affecting offerings because of the depth of characterization he achieves in his two central figures: an American operative (Rick Warden) and an Afghan warlord (Vincent Ibrahim) engaged in a complex exchange of arms and power during the Soviet occupation.

Among the contemporary-set plays, Richard Bean’s “On the Side of the Angels” stands out for its irreverent (but credible) portrayal of the backstage world of NGO culture, and Simon Stephens brings enormous compassion to his portrait of the destructive effect of repeated tours of duty on an English soldier (Tom McKay) and his girlfriend (Jemima Rooper) in “Canopy of Stars.”

The cycle’s scope cannot help but be limited by the fact that all the writers are Western (with one exception: the Iranian-born Siba Shakhib, who contributes short playlets about historical figures). This was, in Kent’s argument, virtually unavoidable given the lack of a playwriting tradition (as we understand it in the West) in the Arab world, and the repressiveness of contemporary Afghan culture. Thus what we are seeing, inevitably, is Western imaginings of the East.

In this context, what makes the Scottish playwright David Greig’s “Miniskirts of Kabul” the cycle’s standout achievement is the simple, brilliant means by which he underlines the status of his work as creativity. The play stages an encounter between real-life figure Mohammad Najibullah (Ramon Tikaram), the communist president of Afghanistan horrifically executed by the Taliban in 1996, and a young British writer (Rooper) who explains how she managed to make her way into Najibullah’s apartment in the U.N. compound: “This is not a normal visit. I’m imagining you.” The provocative exploration of the politician’s character and choices that ensues is therefore clearly positioned as Grieg’s informed speculation.

Finding and enabling the voices of Afghans remains a challenge for the future. In the meantime, the Tricycle continues to broaden the horizons of London theatergoers by inviting them to consider Afghanistan as a location within their imaginative reach.