Reviewed by Judy Richter
It's called "The Great Game: Afghanistan," but when seen in its entirety, the situation it illustrates is anything but a game. It's a seemingly unwinnable quagmire for the West, yet it's vital to Western security. Berkeley Repertory Theatre is presenting the production directly from England, where it was conceived by Nicolas Kent, artistic director Tricycle Theatre. Kent commissioned 12 English and American playwrights to create short plays tracing "the history of Western involvement in Afghanistan since the early 19th century until the present day," Kent said. However, the history seen in the plays isn't strictly chronological.
"Game" is presented as a trilogy that can be seen separately or, on some days, in a marathon that begins at 11:30 a.m. and doesn't end until after 10:30 p.m., with intermissions and meal breaks along the way. Seeing it as a marathon requires some stamina and fortitude because of the physical and intellectual demands it places on viewers. Even trying to understand the varied accents of the 14 Tricycle actors, who appear to be of mixed ethnicities, is demanding.
Moreover, several of the plays are quite talky, almost like lectures rather than dramas. Hence, some aren't very engaging. This is especially true Part One despite its shocking start, "Monologue" by Siba Shakib. It's 1996 in Herat as an Afghan man fills in a mural (which serves as the backdrop through much of the trilogy) while the house lights are still on. Then the lights dim, and a shot rings out. Four Taliban rush in from the audience and haul the terrified man away even as he protests that he is a good Muslim. The action then shifts back to 1842 for "Bugles at the Gates of Jalalabad" by Stephen Jeffreys. Four English soldiers are supposed to sound the advance signal on their bugles to let any of their comrades know that it's safe to come to them after more than 16,000 English and Indian troops and camp followers have been killed on a retreat from Kabul. In between their bugling, they talk and talk.
Part One continues with "Duologue" by Shakib, "Durand's Line" by Ron Hutchinson, "Verbatim" edited by Richard Norton-Taylor, "Campaign" by Amit Gupta and "Now Is the Time" by Joy Wilkinson. Together they become mind-numbing with their exposition and talk. When the lunch break comes slightly more than two hours later, it's tempting not to go back.
To do so would be a mistake, for the most engaging, rewarding plays are seen in Part Two, starting with the best play of the entire trilogy, David Edgar's "Black Tulips." Set in a briefing room for newly arrived conscripts of the Soviet 40th Army, it goes backward, taking place in 1987, 1985, 1984, 1983 and 1981 as officers describe the geography of and situation in Afghanistan with its 20 different ethnicities. The 1987 briefing is terse and not particularly optimistic. It stands in sharp contrast to the more cheerful descriptions heard in the 1981 session.
Following intermission, David Greig's "Miniskirts of Kabul" is set in the UN compound in Kabul in 1996 where Najibullah (Daniel Rabin), the former pro-communist president of Afghanistan, has sought refuge after the anti-communist mujahideen captured the city in 1992. He is being interviewed by a writer (Jemma Redgrave -- fourth-generation member of the famed English acting family), who asks why he hasn't left the country. He says he still believes he can return to power and rescue the country.
This is followed by another "Duologue" by Shakib, in which the mural is painted over by the Taliban because it shows women with their faces uncovered. Part Two ends with the horrifying "The Lion of Kabul" by Colin Teevan. Set late at night in the Kabul zoo in 1998, it uses a lion to illustrate the Taliban's merciless treatment of those whom it views as enemies.
Part Three starts with "Honey" by Ben Ockrent. It takes place in various Afghan cities in 1996 and September 2001, ending with a horrific video of 9/11, when the whitewashed mural serves as a video screen and then collapses, replaced by a poppy field. "The Night Is Darkest Before the Dawn" by Abi Morgan focuses on an American who wants to fund a school for Afghan girls near Kandahar in 2002. After intermission and two more short plays, the trilogy ends ambiguously with another "Verbatim," edited by Norton-Taylor and focusing on current efforts to overcome the Taliban. The characters include Redgrave as U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Berkeley Rep deserves all kinds of kudos for bringing this production to its audiences. It also makes every effort to make the marathon easier to manage by providing food for purchase between the three parts and for arranging with nearby restaurants to serve prix fixe lunches and dinners to patrons. The program also is highly informative. In fact, it's strongly advisable to arrive early enough to find a quiet corner and study the program carefully because there isn't much chance to consult it during the plays.
Kudos also to Tricycle's Kent for conceiving this epic work. He and Indhu Rubasingham direct most of the plays. The production staff includes project designer Pamela Howard, lighting designer David I. Taylor (based on original lighting by James Farncombe), sound designer Tom Lishman, associate director Miriam Nabarro and assistant director Rachel Grunwald.
The playwrights include Richard Bean, Lee Blessing, Edgar, Greig, Gupta, Hutchinson, Jeffreys, Morgan, Ockrent, Simon Stephens, Teevan and Wilkinson.
The actors, who play multiple roles, include Daniel Betts, Sheena Bhattessa, Michael Cochrane, Karl Davies, Vincent Ebrahim, Nabil Elouahabi, Shereen Martineau, Tom McKay, Rabin, Danny Rahim, Raad Rawl, Redgrave, Cloudia Swann and Rick Warden.
Even though the results are somewhat uneven, "Great Game" does succeed in illustrating how very complicated yet how very crucial Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan are to the world, especially the Western world.
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