If it’s possible, see The Great Game, a three-part cycle of plays running through December 19. Watch it to convince people like me that the U.S. should get out of Afghanistan. I will tell you that I didn’t go into the Public Theater at NYU’s Skirball Center with that predisposition, however. I also want to make it clear that the production, which comes to us through Britain’s Tricycle Theatre, is not didactic, it doesn’t advocate such a point of view—in fact, Simon Stephens’s final A Canopy of Stars contradicts it. What I am saying is that art can change minds.
Nicolas Kent, who directed most of the pieces (Indhu Rubasingham is also represented) envisioned the enormity of the concept, which tells the history of Afghanistan from the 1800s to the present (it’s one I wish somebody would also use regarding works on Iraq and Tibet–we need these artistic perspectives). For The Great Game, he commissioned twelve playwrights to write one acts, monologues, introductory materials, and edit verbatim pieces–they take seven hours to watch in their entirety, with two main breaks, but these plays can be viewed in any order and you don’t have to see everything to reap the benefits of the immersion. “The media was preoccupied with Iraq and had hardly spent any time on Afghanistan,” Kent has said, although in America, on Broadway, we weren’t even preoccupied with Iraq (yet, interestingly there is a passionate market for this material—one person I talked to at an intermission of the Afghan plays had come from Boston to the Village–he'd taken a bus that morning, caught the entire show, and was returning home from Port Authority that night).
It’s easy to pounce on the British for having such good writers and actors when we haven’t had subsidies (access to such monies is, unfortunately, changing now in the U.K.) and we’re just jealous (the fine ensemble acting here, it should be mentioned, includes the work of Daniel Rabin, Jemma Redgrave, Nabil Elouahabi, Raad Rawi, Tom McKay, and Cloudia Swann, but it is not limited to them). From their own levels of power, Broadway directors, angels, and producible playwrights, with the real ability to impact the culture, didn’t take up the American wars in the Middle East as subjects for plays. It makes us look ridiculous and unaccountable, if, frankly, not immoral, and, in the age of the Internet, it’s especially noticeable worldwide, as people have more access to learning about our theatre scene and are deciding more interesting things are going on in Chicago (Donald Magulies’s Time Stands Still is an exception, though, and we do have the promise of Robin Williams coming in Rajiv Joseph's Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo in March; Naomi Wallace, Karen Malpede, Tony Kushner, Bill Cain, Quiara Alegria Hudes, Lydia Stryk, George Packer, Brendon Bates, and others had work played on smaller stages or were ignored; David Hare and Gregory Burke from the U.K. did most of our heavy lifting for us). There will be a backlash at home, especially with the successes of the GOP in the midterm elections, and we will be called decadent—in fact, the process has already started in the visual arts at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., which recently was forced to pull an ant-covered Jesus.
How do we tell the people that dramatic artists in the U.S. didn’t find our nation’s two wars suitable for rigorous artistic expression on our foremost stages for a decade? How do we explain that two wars, one based on a mistake of judgment and the other, convening in a place we know virtually nothing about, meant so little to us—even though approximately 5000 American lives were being lost, even though the conflicts were bankrupting the nation?
Recently, Wikileaks called out a “boorish” and “bungling” Prince Andrew for saying "Americans don't understand geography. Never have.” Unfortunately, he might be right—in the past, we could fake it by turning to the movies, David Lean films set in Arabia, or Old Russia, or Thailand; today we don’t have the entertaining epic, the kind your parents thought was good for you and you might have taken a school trip to see—I don’t consider it an insult to say that The Great Game meets the same need. You’ll be reminded of these costume dramas, of the sweep and scale, in the first segment of these plays. And, if you can, do take teens to see this production, even if they tell you it’s “old school” (in the third part there is a short, ungraphic video using porn symbology, but you’ll probably find worse on television commercials, not to mention on the Web–there is strong language, too, in the last piece). The playwrights of the first group are Siba Shakib, Stephen Jeffreys, Ron Hutchinson, Richard Norton-Taylor, Amit Gupta and Joy Wilkinson; they take us into the Afghanistan of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but it’s impossible to say if there is a best play in any of the parts, just as it’s impossible to say if there’s a best actor–each has its own artistic merits, and use in the larger whole, although I’m sure discussion will roll around to what viewers liked best (but you decide that). I want to mention Bugles at the Gates of Jalalabad by Jeffreys, which brings up the wives who followed—in this case, physically–the British officers to Afghanistan; it also establishes the quagmire the land has become for all would-be conquerors and the games other countries played here. Durand’s Line, by Hutchinson, highlights true absurdism, trying to create a map for 20 ethnicities in an area about the size of France; the modern world wanted the map, the different tribal people’s gained or lost ground like the ocean tides over time. Jamming different peoples into fixed imaginary boundaries means terminal war, it is prophesized—and guess what? Afghanistan continues to be in terminal war.
Exciting, too, is the verbatim theatre used in The Great Game, a trend from Britain where actual words from interviews, public statements, and books are used to shape drama—what I especially like about it is that the work allows realism to be seen as real art, as opposed to TV writing (there is a difference, which is especially noticeable when hearing the real-real voices used by verbatim writers and editors, for example, in the work of Victoria Brittain and Gillian Slovo and David Hare and, here, Norton-Taylor).
The second installment of The Great Game emphasizes the Cold War/Soviet era in the country. In Black Tulips, David Edgar fills in the details about understanding a no-man’s land in the center of everywhere while delivering the understatement, “We haven’t learned lessons because people back home don’t care.” Afghanistan, besides being tribal, besides being mountainous, besides having no coast, was a buffer zone between Russia and India (the British). Under the Soviets, and the Afghan war with them, it became a way for the U.S. to fight Russia via covert operations without declaring head-to-head conflict. This necessitated the importance of bordering Pakistan for weaponry supply, which, along with India, was a U.S. ally—but India and Pakistan, of course, were enemies. You’ll also start hearing more about the Taliban. Edgar, Shakib, Lee Blessing David Greig and Colin Teevan (interesting that, besides Joseph’s play, there is another, regarding the current Middle East conflicts, set in a zoo) are the playwrights here documenting the geopolitical relationships and twists—you won’t disagree when you hear Teevan’s line about what happens when all of this is over and the superpowers have left the region: “I am on the side of those who must live here after you’ve gone.” Critically, there are moments in The Great Game, and they’re few, where a line of momentum lags; the actors play upstage, so we can’t see their faces; or the plays lack physicality—perhaps these are differences of cultural expectation; I merely mention.
Although The Great Game is not in strict chronological order, Part Three is the most contemporary. The Soviets have left, which has made the Americans lose interest in the region: We’re entering a void, which is being taken over by terrorist training camps. The poppy, for heroin trafficking, is vital to the economy. In the final part, we’re watching the work of Ben Ockrent, Abi Morgan, Richard Bean, and Simon Stephens—stories reappear in this segment, and they especially highlight the idea that although the playwrights were working solo, certain leitmotifs were incorporated throughout the whole (for example, the subject of women who follow their men, brought up in Jeffreys’s play, comes back in the last piece of the show). We’re seeing, too, more than elsewhere, what the impact of perpetual war, 9/11, and the Taliban means to the everyday population, as well as to the everyday soldier. It’s what convinced me that if we left Afghanistan, we would be allowing a return to a safe haven for terrorists–and with it, the potential to be attacked again.
I’m not sure why American theatre has decided work designed to educate, to drag us out of artistic narcissism and solipsism is unacceptable—how could we not be seeing plays about these wars, unless Eric Bentley’s idea of a playwright as thinker has been disbanded; or, perhaps, it’s a blinder for the fact that we really don’t know all that much about geography, history, or geopolitics. Perhaps, too, it just doesn’t sound glamorous enough. We do know that we’re in the middle of a crisis of education at home—New York’s Mayor Bloomberg has brought in Cathie Black, from Hearst Publications in the private sector, to be School Chancellor. With so much competing for a kid’s wallet, however, she, like all teachers, will face an uphill battle trying to get the attention of students. What they may not be realizing is that we’re spending their future dollars on two large-scale military operations. Maybe they should know something about them. It not only takes parents and teachers to raise the level of a child’s understanding—it takes public art, foundational works, societal concern, too: artistic concern to stop ripping off children’s minds and calling it free-market enterprise. Do those in the “entertainment industry” have a place in aiding public education? Britain’s The Great Game tells us the answer is yes.
© 2010 by Bob Shuman
The above video is from the English production
THE GREAT GAME: AFGHANISTAN
The Tricycle Theatre Company's
THE GREAT GAME: AFGHANISTAN
New York Premiere / NYU Skirball Center
By Richard Bean, Lee Blessing, David Edgar, David Greig, Amit Gupta, Ron Hutchinson, Stephen Jeffreys, Abi Morgan, Ben Ockrent, Simon Stephens, Colin Teevan, and Joy Wilkinson Directed by Nicolas Kent and Indhu Rubasingham
Presented in association with NYU Skirball Center
Supported by the British Council
December 1 – December 19, 2010
From the Tricycle Theatre in London, The Great Game: Afghanistan is a unique three part theatrical event exploring the culture and history of Afghanistan since Western involvement in 1842 to the present day. Performances in New York begin December 1, produced by The Public Theater in association with NYU Skirball Center.
Browse this website for more information about The Great Game: Afghanistan and special events surrounding the New York run.
DECEMBER 1 – 19 at NYU Skirball Center
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Full Price Tickets: $70-80 each
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