This does not mean there’s no accomplishment in the work. Uniting 12 writers and two directors (Nicolas Kent and Indhu Rubasingham) for 19 “chapters” across three collections, totaling nearly seven and a half hours of playing time, is going to result in some sparkle. When The Great Game, a term referring to the constant sparring between the Soviet Union and England for control of the region, is at the top of its own game, it makes you realize there’s more to this part of the world than you can discern from the buzzwords to which it’s so often reduced in news reports. And even when the action is in a lull, it’s never turgid and always at least digestible.
It is not, however, in any way electrifying, which helps epics of this nature (or, well, any play) go down easier, as we’ve seen on our own shores in recent years. There’s none of the sweep of The Coast of Utopia, none of the rollicking laughs of The Norman Conquests, none of the homespun emotionalism of The Orphans’ Home Cycle, and none of the weighty import of Angels in America. All this show has in common with those is its length; what it lacks that they possess are a firm, consistent point of view and a strong arc carrying the viewer from beginning to end and proving that the journey was worthwhile. The Great Game just comes across as an anthology, which over such a long running time feels more wearying than wise.
The Public claims the three evenings may be viewed in any order, but unless you’re well versed in the subject, attending them in the proper chronological sequence (whether across nights or on weekend marathon days) is the safest strategy. This way, you’ll experience the beginnings of the modern era, when the British suffered a major defeat at Jalalabad in 1842 and half a century later carved up the region into Afghanistan and Pakistan, apparently aware of the fissures this could open; the Communists will then move in, and the United States will see the country as a chief battleground of the Cold War even as it unwittingly fuels greater tensions to come; and then arrives the last decade or so, with the concerns of the Taliban, women’s rights, aid workers, and soldiers taking over to show that both Afghanistan’s present and future remain open questions.
Obviousness and a sense of smug superiority characterize many of the remaining offerings. Playwright Ron Hutchinson has almost drafted “Durand’s Line” as a comedy, with the oh-so-smart Amir Abdur Rahman tut-tutting his way through Sir Henry Mortimer Durand’s attempts to bring order to the chaotic Middle East, and ticking off all the reasons we’re supposed to recognize the very notion was absurd from the start. Amit Gupta yanks us from the late 19th century to the early 21st with his “Campaign,” an astonishingly bland block of after-the-fact exposition for Wilkinson’s work that’s only missing a feather duster–bearing maid wondering when the master will be home.
Some of what remains is merely boring. The entire saga ends on two overwrought notes, first with Richard Bean’s watery examination of aid workers, “On the Side of the Angels,” and then with Simon Stephens’s “Canopy of Stars,” which drives home the dull dual messages that members of the military are making matters worse for both the people of Afghanistan and themselves. Interspersed throughout is “Verbatim,” Richard Norton-Taylor’s editing of speeches from contemporary power players (Hillary Clinton makes a brief appearance), that somehow sheds no new insight on the geopolitical situation.
Yet more is just outright weird. The second collection commences with David Edgar’s “Black Tulips,” which tries and fails to wring suspense from the Communist disintegration of Afghanistan by telling its story backwards (from 1987 to 1981); and fantasy floods “Miniskirts of Kabul,” David Greig’s musing on how a journalist might have imagined the final minutes of Communist leader Najibullah, whom the Taliban murdered in 1996.
But neither they nor Kent, the Tricycle Theatre's artistic director who commissioned the pieces in 2008, can overcome the stop-and-start nature that prevents the show from ever gaining either traction or momentum, whether individually or within each collection. The last thing an enterprise like this needs is pomposity, but a more elevated force behind it as a piece of entertainment might convince us of the playwrights' contention that the last 170 years of Afghanistan have been driven by one bang after another. The Great Game's potentially illuminating macro and micro sagas too often end with whimpers instead.
The Great Game: Afghanistan