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The Great Game: Afghanistan

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Jemma Redgrave
Photo by John Haynes.

William Shakespeare, that master of stage histories, knew that a compelling chronicle comes from intense focus applied with dramatic discipline. If not all of The Bard's forays into this genre have received the same adoration as his tragedies and comedies, they are ultimately still all plays that adhere to his unsurpassed storytelling instincts. The same is not exactly true of The Great Game: Afghanistan, the ambitious but arid production of London's Tricycle Theatre that The Public Theater is presenting at the Skirball Center at NYU: It wants to condense everything we know about a flash point of two centuries worth of conflict into a single package, without much concern about the results' overall theatricality—which explains why so little is on display.

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.

Daniel Rabin
Photo by John Haynes.

The strongest moments occur, predictably enough, during the incidents of greatest discord. Stephen Jeffreys's opener, "Bugles at the Gates of Jalalabad," offers the haunting image of British soldiers bravely blowing their horns into the darkness, knowing an all-consuming threat lies just beyond their field of vision. "Now Is the Time," written by Joy Wilkinson, depicts the circumstances that sent King Amanullah Khan into exile in 1929, with world-changing political and psychological events unfolding around a single Rolls-Royce stuck in a snow drift. In "Wood for the Fire," by Lee Blessing, the CIA sows seeds of danger as its operatives struggle to destabilize the Soviet threat in the early and mid 1980s. And the Taliban's brutal ideas of justice are brought forth with bloody efficiency by Colin Teevan in "The Lion in Kabul."

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.

Daniel Rabin, Danny Rahim, Vincent Ebrahim, and Nabil Elouahabi.
Photo by John Haynes.

Kent and Rubasingham have done an admirable job of directing all this: Every piece is clear; the physical production (by Pamela Howard), though stark, is effective; and there are even a couple of legitimate coups de theatre involving an elaborate mural that serves as the backdrop for much of the action. And if none of the actors glimmers for more than a couple of minutes at a time, it's an adroit group of game performers. The most notable are Jemma Redgrave, who plays thoughtful representatives of the West as (among others) an author observing the Jalalabad disaster and Najibullah's illusory spiritual savior; and Daniel Rabin, who brings a charismatic, restrained fire to Amanullah Khan and Najibullah that identifies democratic strength within a constantly disintegrating culture.

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
Through December 19
Skirball Center / NYU, 566 LaGuardia Place at Washington Square South
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