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At first glance, the idea of putting on a theatre performance lasting eleven hours and covering 150 years on the history of Afghanistan appears utterly bizarre. Mad even. At least that was my reaction when Nicolas Kent, the artistic director of the Tricycle Theatre, suggested the idea to me last summer. Yet The Great Game, made up of twelve one-act plays on Afghan history, does precisely that.
It begins with Bugles at the Gates of Jalalabad by Stephen Jeffreys. The play tells the story of the first Afghan war, which took place in the mid 19th century – one of the first major conflicts during the ‘Great Game’, the term coined to describe the power struggle in central Asia between Great Britain and Russia.
And it ends with the current bloody conflict in Afghanistan in Simon Stephens’ play Canopy of Stars, which explores the war’s impact on British soldiers and the responses of their family back home. That the opening and final stories of The Great Game focus on wars the British have fought in Afghanistan provides a sad yet beautiful framing to the play, as we see the same mistakes repeated and hear of their impact by two generations of soldiers living 150 years apart.
But the question remains; why put on such an epic play about Afghanistan? Afghanistan is the political issue of the day; our country is embroiled in a long and bloody war there, the end of which appears a long way off, and what happens in Afghanistan promises to have a massive impact on world politics for years to come. Looking at it this way, it is surprising the history and politics of the country have not been explored more by writers and artists, as for example Iraq’s have.
Politics and art have always enjoyed a special relationship; art allows us to probe our beliefs and ideas and convey them in new, interesting and creative forms. And when free political debate is stifled or silenced, art becomes the last sanctuary of expression, as people search for covert methods of communicating what they can no longer say aloud.
The Great Game tries to unpack and explore a history more hidden than visible to many in the west, and give a voice to opinions and ideas often lacking in our national ‘discussions’ on Afghanistan. In this sense it is the absolute meeting of the political and the art.
The playwrights, including Richard Bean, David Edgar, David Greig, Abi Morgan, Simon Stephens, Ron Hutchinson, Stephen Jeffreys and Colin Teevan, have delivered scripts which are politically challenging and complex and beautifully dramatic, and varied in both form and content. Each play is like a signature of the playwright exploring the history of one country but in a style unique to each, and lingering on themes of personal interest.
It is this communication and co-dependence between art and politics that inspires artists. It forces the stars to part with their egos and makes it about the experience; this is not about one playwright, one leading actor or one director but about the questions we, as a group, are asking of an audience. There is no space in The Great Game for such egos; it runs for eleven hours, in which time the audience is guided through twelve stories, each with their own characters and concerns. The same actors are used throughout, in greater or lesser roles depending on the play, creating a true ensemble experience.
In recounting the history of Afghanistan, characters and opinions are featured that are often unheard in the west. The Lion of Kabul, one of the plays within The Great Game, is a neat example. The main character is a Taliban mullah – figures much spoken about here in Britain but rarely allowed a voice. This mullah, named Kahn, asks some probing questions about how the west views Afghanistan, at one point asking: ‘Is it not our human right to reject your “freedom”? This is one human right you do not recognise.’
Some of the opinions presented may not be ones I, or the audience, agree with, but that is the point of theatre. When you stage a play you have to engage in all perspectives; the whole point is to be as objective as possible and create complex characters which are believable. We in the west are looking at the world through a western lens and our specific cultural attitudes permeate our understanding and response. When you are directing or acting you have to be as true to the characters as possible, which forces you to examine and justify a character whose opinions are not your own. But this is what makes theatre interesting. It is what makes theatre unique.
Afghan history is rich and complex, as is our relationship with it. In staging The Great Game we are not concerned with ‘supporting’ or ‘defeating’ any argument or opinion. It does not offer answers but invites questions. We hope to spark debate – but one premised upon a more thorough understanding of Afghanistan’s history and politics.
Indhu Rubasingham was talking to Kate Ferguson