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A CurtainUp Review
The Great Game: Afghanistan
This dramatic smorgasbord makes for a lengthy meal with much to chew on and digest. The sprawling amalgam of plays has been divided into three installments: Part One 1842-1930: Invasions and Independence, PartTwo 1979-1996: Communism, The Mujahideen & The Taliban, and Part Three 1996-2010: Enduring Freedom. This allows you to see any or all parts in any order and over 3 evenings, or as a day-long marathon event. I as well as my Curtainup colleagues chose the all-in-one approach which probably makes for the most powerful experience.
The cyclical story traces the invasion and resistance pattern interwoven into the political and cultural fabric of the country since 1842. A dozen British and American playwrights were enlisted by the London-based, always politically-minded Tricycle Theatre. The Playwrights were invited to address the geopolitical quagmire in Afghanistan. And so they have.
"The Great Game" historically refers to the strategic rivalry and conflict between the British Empire and the Russian Empire for supremacy in Central Asia. The term was introduced into the popular culture by British writer Rudyard Kipling in his 1901 novel Kim. In light of this dramatic assemblage, the definition can be broadened to embrace both its historic meaning and its pertinence to the political tensions in Afghanistan today.
The purpose and content of the entire trilogy serves as an illustration that the progressive gains in Afghanistan have been few. First ruled by a number of fiercely independent warlords, the land has become a patch of ground for foreigners to graft their own political vision upon. One watches this unfold through the British and Soviet skirmishes during the first section, then branch out to bring in Communism, the Taliban and the ostensible Western support in the last two parts. The dominating purpose and content of the entire trilogy serves to illustrate that the progressive gains in Afghanistan have been few. Indeed playwright Simon Stephens in his Canopy of Stars sadly hits the nail on the head when he writes that Afghanistan is "the new North Ireland."
The best piece by far is David Edgar's Black Tulips,which is dramatically structured as military briefings running from 1981 through 1987. As its five scenes unfold one learns the harsh tradition of vendetta in the tribal lands and how this brutally corresponds to the old Afghan story of how a man answers the question "Have you an enemy?" with "Of course, I have a cousin."
The scope of this multi-play enterprise demands admiration. However, some of the pieces are too sketchy and need fleshing out while others would benefit from tightening up the dialogue. Still, the cumulative effect is powerful, an opportunity to experience cutting-edge political drama. The Verbatim policy presentations by actors portraying the likes of Hillary Clinton and military operatives like General Stanley McCrhystal that are sparingly peppered into the work add authentic flavor and gravitas to the proceedings.
The ensemble has a tall order to fill here. While all the actors are required to play multiple roles, not all are up to the formidable task. There are standout performances from Jemma Redgrave (Yes, she's the daughter of the late-Corin, and niece of Vanessa Redgrave), Shereen Martineau, and Tom McKay. The rest of the cast is serviceable but lack the versatility to play the range of global characters.
Don't expect this investment in time to leave you with a clear picture of who's on the wrong or right side of history or provide answers to how to get to the the bottom and out of the political and social morass. The real purpose of this ambitious triptych is to spark a fresh public debate on this troubled land. Perhaps Winston Churchill anticipated the spirit of this event when he said: "To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war."
For more details about the individual plays, see Curtainup's previous reviews The Great Game-London, which had the plays somewhat differently arranged ( probably because one of the playwrights from that staging withdrew his piece and one by h Lee Blessing in its place during the US tour). . . The Great Game-DC.