The Great Game

Tricycle Theatre, London

What more is there left to say about Nick Kent and the Tricycle Theatre? Having blazed a trail over the past decade with his tribunal stagings and support for black British, American and South African theatre, Nick Kent has now devised a mammoth festival around the subject of Afghanistan that is simply gobsmacking in its scope and reach.

I can’t think of any other arts or theatre organisation that has taken this subject on in such depth though perhaps there has been the occasional Afghanistan situated single play and certainly there has been a slew of Army and squaddie related plays including Black Watch and in this very theatre, Ron Hutchinson’s Topless Mum.

But The Great Game not only comprises fifteen specially commissioned plays, five in each section, by some of our leading playwrights – Hutchinson, Stephen Jeffreys, David Greig, David Edgar, Richard Bean, Naomi Wallace, Abi Morgan, Simon Stephens – it also encompasses films, documentaries, music, debates, play readings and exhibitions. If the National had attempted anything as ambitious they would have been rightly applauded. That Kent and the Tricycle have undertaken such an enterprise on such fewer resources speaks volumes. If theatre is a platform for a nation reflecting itself, then The Great Game proves yet again that the Tricycle under Kent has become the nation’s political crucible.

Most importantly, The Great Game is a dense, packed education in history, from the 19th century up to the present day – fictionalised but based on real facts and events. A highly confusing political picture – and after almost twelve hours of theatregoing, you could be forgiven for feeling a touch overwhelmed – certain fundamentals do emerge: about the West’s catastrophic interference in Afghanistan and the country as the victim of succeeding `spheres of influence’.

Most people knew little or nothing about Afghanistan before the latest military `adventure’. I knew our history there went back much further into our imperial past. I had been lucky enough to have visited the country, briefly, in the early 1970s when I was living in Iran. But there was a lot I didn’t know. I wanted to know more and Kent’s The Great Game has certainly given me that.

Divided into three parts, each comprising five plays, in Part 1 (1842-1930, Invasions and Independence) Stephen Jeffreys’ Bugles at the Gates of Jalalabad and Ron Hutchinson’s Durand’s Line give vivid reminders of how Afghanistan became embroiled in British foreign policy as a strategic counter to similar Russian imperial pretensions in the area. Jeffreys’ Bugles is based on the terrible massacre of British forces and their families retreating from Kabul in 1841 whilst Hutchinson’s Durand’s Line gives a fascinating encounter between Sir Henry Mortimer Durand, the British Foreign Minister in India in 1893 and the then Afghan Amir, Abdur Rahman, in which the signing of a map and the redrawing of the boundaries of Afghanistan becomes a metaphor for British hubris and the power of the imagination. As Durand says: `A thing has to be defined – Good God, that’s what this whole century has been about. A disease, a law of science, an international border – they need defining; progess flows from that.’

Later, in Part 2 (1979-1996, Communism, the Mujahideen and the Taliban), the idea of the imagination finds a potent echo in David Greig’s deceptively named, moving Miniskirts of Kabul – a dialogue between a journalist and a former, Soviet-backed Afghan President, Najibullah. Only the event, in a sense, never takes place. It is all in the mind of the writer who wants to know what kind of man he was – a man who, we find out, is later to suffer a gruesome death at the hands of the Taliban.

As well as providing an ironic portrait of someone reputed to have been a cruel despot, Miniskirts also exposes some of the many contradictions in the clash of cultures between Afghanistan and the West. There is a wonderful moment, for example, where the writer and Najibullah dance to a video of the Spice Girls – incongruous, surreal and strangely touching.

Inevitably, there is much violence in these stories – one of the most horrific episodes concerns the Taliban’s (apparently true) feeding of prisoners to lions, illustrated and convincingly staged by Indhu Rubasingham in Colin Teevan’s The Lion of Kabul (set in 1998) in which a UN Aid Supervisor finds her workers have suffered such a fate. J T Rogers’ Blood and Gifts (from Part 2) manages to eerily and tellingly evoke the devastating miscalculation made by the West in its support of local mujahideen leaders who then switch sides. As Abdullah says to the American who has been supporting him with arms: `I am a practical man, Jim. I do what must be done…First we will cleanse our country. Then we will cross oceans.’

The years pass. The chronology builds and Teevan’s play, which rounds off Part 2, brings the intolerance of Taliban thinking into stark relief. Abi Morgan’s The Night is Darkest Before the Dawn, set in 2002 (the 2nd play in Part 3, 1996-2009, Enduring Freedom) is a thoughtful examination of one of the major stumbling blocks for westerners regarding Afghan culture – the emancipation of women, in a story about religious pressures in the countryside and in particular, education for girls.

Duplicity, ambition, bravery, wasted lives (David Edgar’s Black Tulips about the Soviet incursions into Afghanistan in the 1980s strikes quite consciously chilling and sardonic parallels with the current British exercise) – all find their expression in this extraordinary dramatic kaleidoscope. It’s painful apotheosis climaxes with Simon Stephens’ Canopy of Stars with its portrayal of two Mancunian squaddies in a Helmand Province dugout and the deadening after-effects on one of them on his return home with his wife and family.

Not exactly a new situation – we have seen the consequences portrayed elsewhere in previous plays – what it does underline is the sheer acting virtuosity of the team collected here by Nick Kent. The ensemble of fifteen are all, individually and collectively, outstanding with, for my money, Rick Warden, Michael Cochrane, Paul Bhattacharjee, Lolita Chakrabarti and Nabil Elouahabi perhaps deserving of special praise. But really, it’s invidious. Together they have all worked a miracle.

Ps: a name to watch, Amit Gupta. His contemporary play, Campaign (part of Part 1), capturing New Labour’s exodus policy and the present Whitehall mindset is a corker.


Part 1 (1842-1930)

Invasions and Independence:

Monologue by Siba Shakib

Bugles at the Gates of Jalalabad by Stephen Jeffreys

Duologue: by Siba Shakib

Durand’s Line by Ron Hutchinson

Campaign by Amit Gupta

Now is the Time by Joy Wilkinson

Part 2 (1979-1996)

Communism, the Mujahideen and the Taliban

Black Tulips by David Edgar

Monologue by Siba Shakib

Blood and Gifts by J T Rogers

Miniskirts of Kabul by David Greig

Duologue by Siba Shakib

The Lion of Kabul by Colin Teevan

Part 3 (1996-2009)

Enduring Freedom

Honey by Ben Ockrent

The Night is Darkest Before the Dawn by Abi Morgan

Verbatim by Richard Norton-Taylor

On the Side of the Angels by Richard Bean

Verbatim by Richard Norton-Taylor

Canopy of Stars by Simon Stephens


Directors: Nicolas Kent and Indhu Rubasingham

Assisted by Rachel Grunwald

Project Designer: Pamela Howard

Associate Designer: Miriam Nabarro

Lighting Designer: James Farncombe

Sound Designer: Tom Lishman

Assistant Designer & AV Designer: Carl B Hamilton

Literary Advisor: Jack Bradley

Casting Director: Crowley Poole

Voice Coach: Majella Hurley

Fight Director: Bret Yount

Production Manager: Shaz McGee

Costume Supervisor: Sydney Florence

Assistant to Indhu Rubasingham: Nadia Latif

Props: Lizzie Chapman

Rehearsal ASM & Armourer: Benjamin Jones

Design Assistants: Fiona Parker, Lauren Irving

The Great Game at the Tricycle Theatre continued with films, debates, music, exhibitions.

Review first published in Reviewsgate, April 2009