As ambitious projects go, the Tricycle theatre’s The Great Game: Afghanistan season is up there with the Colossus of Rhodes, exploring two decades of the country’s turbulent history through 12 new plays by 12 different writers in seven hours of theatre.
Having slipped to the back of many minds during the war in Iraq, the conflict in Afghanistan re-emerged in the collective consciousness earlier this year when the newly inaugurated President Obama announced he would be sending an additional 17,000 troops to the region.
The Tricycle theatre’s new season attempts to show audiences how the country found itself where it is today, exploring the different roles Britain, Russia and the US played in the country’s creation, development and troubles while also telling personal stories and examining key characters from Afghanistan’s history.
With 12 different writers involved – 14 if you include novelist Siba Shakib and Tricycle theatre regular Richard Norton Taylor, who provide short monologues and verbatim pieces interspersed with the plays – the cycle of plays envelops a gamut of styles and approaches, some more focused on telling the history, others more explorative of politics and people; together offering a rounded whole where, if one piece doesn’t appeal, it is rarely more than 30 minutes before another is offered.
Among the plays, Stephen Jeffreys’s Bugles At The Gates Of Jalalabad sets the tone for a bloody history with its depiction of the slaughter of 16,000 British troops and camp followers on retreat from Kabul, told through the eyes of four buglers on the lookout for survivors. Amit Gupta’s Campaign takes a wry look at how politics spins history to its own ends, while David Edgar’s Black Tulips cleverly uses reverse chronology to explore the changing view of Soviet fighting in the 1980s through the briefing of new conscripts, the officers noticeably moving from worn down cynicism and defensiveness to hopeful ambition and whole-hearted belief.
The pieces set nearer the present need less emphasis on the exploration of history, assuming more knowledge of current affairs, giving the writers greater freedom to tell a story. Simon Stephens, in the cycle’s final play Canopy Of Stars, examines the effect of the war on one single soldier, the mind-set and sights of conflict affecting his return home. Richard Bean’s On The Side Of The Angels, the most humorous of all the pieces, takes a look at the work of aid organisations and the tough ethical bargaining that remains, for the most part, unseen.
While most of the plays are strongly set in realistic, recognisable settings, there is room for inventiveness as David Greig lets imagination run free during a completely conjured meeting between a writer and former President Najibullah, as the wordsmith desperately tries to understand the motivations of a man who both fought for women’s liberation and tortured and killed hundreds.
The ensemble cast is asked to take on a multitude of roles during across the play cycle, providing many memorable performances. Ramon Tikaram is confident, witty and charismatic as Najibullah, but aches with fear, resentment and anger as a farmer who has seen his progressive brother murdered by the Taliban. Paul Bhattacharjee swaps a cool, intelligent, poetic Afghan Amir for a confused, frustrated intellectual. Tom McKay is both a blissfully repulsive civil servant and a wonderfully right-on aid worker. But to pluck names out for praise seems unfair on the rest of the cast who all step up to the challenge of multiple roles.
Though 12 plays on a common same subject sounds like a huge offering – and for those who don’t have an entire day free, they are split chronologically into three sections – there is a sense that there is still much more to be explored. Themes touched upon in the short pieces could be taken to much greater depths in full length productions, interesting characters more fully explored. Yet as a torch to illuminate a country around which much of current world history revolves and which could prove pivotal in the future, The Great Game: Afghanistan is a shining light.