A Modern, Muddled History of Afghanistan In Three Acts

Even while talking with Nicholas Kent on the phone, you could hear the murmur in the background.

Kent, the artistic director of the Tricycle Theater Company in England and the man responsible for putting together “The Great Game”, an ambitious three-play project on imperialism and other forays into Afghanistan at Sidney Harman Hall which ended last Saturday, was delighted by the buzz in the background. That would be audiences from the first two parts of the trilogy, talking it up about what they saw.

“That was one of the concerns about taking these plays on an American tour,” said Kent, who also directs “Black Tulip”, one of the mini-plays in the second part of the trilogy. “We didn’t know how the audiences would react. Obviously, it’s a very timely subject for Americans as well as Europeans, given the state of the commitment of the American military effort there.”

“The audiences,” Kent says, “have been amazing. There’s really a reaction here. It’s not like people are sitting there dutifully taking their medicine of serious or historic drama.”

In Washington especially, that was bound to happen, although it takes theatrical stamina and determination to take in all three plays, which feature the participation and writing efforts of twelve playwrights. The trio of plays actually comprises about a dozen plays of varying lengths. “We basically sent out a call for plays, and we got quite a result.”

Afghanistan looms large in the Barack Obama presidency. It haunts the minds of the U.S. body politics, and the cost of the effort in human loss can be seen almost every day in the small dramas provided by funeral corteges that make their sorrowful way to a plot in Arlington National Cemetery. “The Great Game”, a phrase coined by the eminent chronicler of the British Empire Rudyard Kipling, is an effort to tell the story of three great power efforts — futile on the first two, school’s still out on the last — to control events in Afghanistan. Part One is called “Invasion and Independence” and focuses on the British Empire’s efforts there, some of them ending in major massacres and defeats up until 1930.

Part Two chronicles the Soviet Union’s efforts to create a subject state by way of invasion, and the CIA’s varied forays there, helping the Mujahedeen’s anti-Russian rebellion. The same group would eventually morph into the Taliban. Part Three, “Enduring Freedom”, are the stories of the American presence after 9/11, a story that remains unfinished if not undone. “Obviously, Afghanistan is a hugely important event in terms of the United States,” Kent said. “That’s why we thought it would be an appropriate undertaking, especially in Washington.”

Kent’s Tricycle Theater Company is an odd mixture of a theater, and very much reflects the interests of its director. “I think sometimes people here think we just do plays they see as political, or archival, or documentary,” he said. “We also do entertainments, if you will, like “The 39 Steps”, or straight plays, including “The Great White Hope.” You do want to have an audience – it’s theater after all.”

But the so-called tribunal plays are what sets Tricycle and Kent apart from the rest of the theater world. Kent has staged plays about the war crime tribunals created in the wake of the break-up of Yugoslavia, about the British in Ireland, about Apartheid in South Africa and the Nuremberg Trials, as well as Guantanamo. Much of the dialogue in these plays comes from verbatim transcripts and documents of trials.

Kent chafes when people see him as a left-wing ideologue. “I’m not a lefty, per se. It’s not about lefty, right wing and things like that. It’s about justice, history, not forgetting. It’s about understanding history and its repetition. You shouldn’t really talk about Afghanistan if you know nothing about what’s gone on there for centuries.”

This sort of approach to history and theater can be highly affecting and dramatic in and of itself. During the course of a performance of the play about the Nuremberg trials, which included actors playing Hermann Goring reciting testimony from the trials, an elderly Holocaust survivor in the audience became so distraught that she stood up and shouted at the Goring character , yelling “Liar, murderer.”

“It was quite astonishing, yes,” Kent said.

“I don’t see these plays as political plays,” he said. “I don’t see myself that way. If you’re going to call my interests something, call them humanitarian.”

“The Great Game” is still of great interest to Americans here. Of course in Washington, the CIA, the government, the defense department, the state department, the national security and intelligence apparatus located here could fill several theaters for several weeks at least. It would be nice to think they’re checking out “The Great Game.”

Meanwhile, we can still hear the buzz, the murmur in the background. Though the troupe just left Washington, the first stop on its US tour, it will be in NYC from December 1-19 at the Public Theater. Check the Tricycle Theater website at www.tricycle.co.uk

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