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Like Poppies

October 25, 2010

Jemma Redgrave and Daniel Rabin in Miniskirts of Kabul Photo: John Haynes

So what was I doing Sunday while I was missing Placido Domingo sing the opening performance of Cyrano de Bergerac at San Francisco Opera? I was across the bay in Berkeley in one of the all-day marathon performances of The Great Game: Afghanistan from London’s Tricycle Theater now on its U.S. tour at Berkeley Rep. All 11 hours of it with breaks and intermissions. Yes that is a long time to sit in a darkened theater in a single day for a single performance. It even stands out in a season of marathon theatrical production from the revival of Tony Kushner’s seven-plus hour Angels in America at the Signature Theater in New York to the return of the Elevator Repair Services’ equally long Gatz at The Public Theater. But even with the quality of these lengthy productions, The Great Game stands out. In fact, its success almost depends on its extreme length. It’s a massive work with all kinds of foibles and weak spots, but it is an absolutely unique theatrical experience and worth every minute of it.

Raad Rawi and Shereen Martineau in The Lion of Kabul Photo: John Haynes

The Tricycle Theater set out to develop a long work examining the history of the West’s involvement in Afghanistan. The company, directed by Nicolas Kent and Indhu Rubasingham, is no stranger to current, unabashedly political theater and intended from the outset for The Great Game: Afghanistan to be as much of a teach-in on the state of this very troubled part of the world as it was to be any sort of more familiar theater piece. Based on prior experiments, they recruited a diverse group of mostly British playwrights to craft brief, one-act plays touching on pivotal scenes from a century and a half of Afghan history. The scenes were then strung together in a somewhat chronological order and buffered with a variety of monologues – some imagined from the mouths of historical figures and others quoted verbatim from today’s news. An excellent ensemble cast of 14 players present a huge number of myriad characters in varying settings and time periods. The Great Game is first and foremost the rarest of things to a modern audience - a history play. The characters tend to be notable politicians and activists both famous and infamous, recreating imagined versions of known events. Like any history, the show is a moving target itself. Since its 2009 premiere in London, it has already been updated with the latest content, referencing elements from as recently as September 2010 on the current tour.

Rick Warden, Karl Davies, Nabil Elouahabi and Daniel Betts in Bugles at the Gates of Jalalabad Photo: John Haynes

The Great Game: Afghanistan is divided into three parts each containing four single act mini-plays and two or three monologues for extra padding between them. Part One deals with British colonial occupation of and wars with the country and its eventual independence between the years 1842-1930. Part Two surveys the role of the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. in the region in the 1980s and 1990s. And Part Three looks at Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11 until the present day. Yet even with the variety of different creative voices and perspectives in the show, it does have a definite political edge, especially in the home stretch where its creators appear to firmly place themselves in an ideological camp advocating for a continued Western military presence in Afghanistan to prevent what they see as threats from a resurgent Taliban and continued weak Afghan political system. Not that this is a simplistic or uncomplicated view of life during near constant wartime. The Great Game: Afghanistan may be historical but it is not neutral or passively observing.

Shereen Martineau and Sheena Bhattessa in The Night is Darkest Before the Dawn Photo: John Haynes

All of the mini-plays take place in a rather sparse black square in front of a painted historical mural that is built upon, defaced, and finally transformed into a field of poppies by the end of the day. Not all of these brief stories work. Some, like Stephen Jeffrey’s Bugles at the Gates of Jalalabad and Ron Hutchinson’s Durand’s Line invest the play’s earliest events with a television movie realism that borders on the farcical. Others like Lee Blessing’s Wood for the Fire are suspense films without the suspense. But there are wonderful, inspiring moments as well, including the terrifying The Lion of Kabul from Colin Teevan, recounting the moral wasteland of the Taliban mind and David Grieg’s lyrical Miniskirts of Kabul. There is melodrama from Abi Morgan’s The Night is Darkest Before the Dawn and poetry from Ben Ockrent’s Honey. There is not a clean or easy ending here, and Simon Stephen’s Canopy of Stars about the return of a British soldier from Afghanistan to his family’s questioning about what good his soldiering has come to seems to almost end the conversation of the play mid-sentence.

Cloudia Swann and Tom McKay in Canopy of Stars Photo: John Haynes

But that is the kind of theatrical experience this is – an ongoing dynamic consideration of the now to be revisited as the situation develops. And herein lies the strength of The Great Game: Afghanistan. It never comes close to landing all its punches, but it soldiers on, striving for something more—a deeper understanding, regardless. Seeing any of the three individual parts of this work might give you a sense of the project, but I would argue that without the entire experience, the viewer misses out of the grand sweep of history under consideration which is exactly the point. So see them all. The Great Game: Afghanistan continues in Berkeley through November 7th before leaving for an engagement at The Public Theater in New York.



That's a great writeup, one of your best. However, I'm not spending nine hours with a worldview that ends with British imperialist assholes who "firmly place themselves in an ideological camp advocating for a continued Western military presence in Afghanistan to prevent what they see as threats from a resurgent Taliban and continued weak Afghan political system." Sorry, I'm not buying that. We're in the 21st century.
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