Fall Guide: The Tricycle Theatre Invades With Its Epic History of Afghanistan

The Public Theater presents director Nicholas Kent's production of The Great Game

The war in Iraq has inspired dozens of plays. Recently, Broadway’s American Idiot made the campaign positively hummable. And yet the conflict in Afghanistan has barely motivated a one-act. This fall, the Public Theater will redress that balance when it presents the Tricycle Theatre’s The Great Game, a series of 12 plays and supplementary monologues tracing nearly 170 years of foreign involvement in Afghanistan. Performances begin December 1 at NYU’s Skirball Center.

According to Nicolas Kent, the artistic director of London’s Tricycle, this epic production (11 hours, including meal breaks) stems directly from his own ignorance. The Tricycle has made a name for itself with what it calls “tribunal plays,” dramatic works drawn from court transcripts and other official documents. To lead such a theater, Kent has had to remain ludicrously well-informed in matters of history and politics. But several years ago, when a friend mentioned the second and third Anglo-Afghan wars, Kent realized he “didn’t know much about either.”

To remedy this defect, he traveled to Kabul, undertook copious research, and commissioned 12 writers to provide half-hour dramas on British, Russian, and U.S. incursions in the region. Some scribes were left to choose their subjects; others were assigned a particular time and topic. “I thought that if I could get a number of playwrights to start me at the moment of Western involvement and take me through the story to now,” says Kent, “it would be incredibly illuminating. We might learn quite a few lessons from the past.”

These plays, by U.K. writers and one Yank, Lee Blessing, are divided into three distinct periods: “Invasions and Independence, 1842–1930” covers the British invasion and its aftermath; “Communism, the Mujahideen and the Taliban, 1979–1996” centers on the Russian occupation and U.S. attempts to destabilize it; and “Enduring Freedom, 1996–2010” examines the present conflict. (Kent somewhat regrets that the era from 1930 through 1970, a period of relative stability during which some social reforms were enacted, has been ignored.) The Great Game also features monologues by Iranian writer Siba Shakib and verbatim pieces drawn from interviews with American and British generals and senior Taliban officials.

The production proved an enormous success in London, earning top marks from all the major papers and an Olivier Award nomination. David Greig, one of the participating playwrights, describes watching the marathon as “both an extremely interesting dramatic experience in terms of story and an immersive, imaginative education in the history of a country.”

Some of the plays, like Ron Hutchinson’s mordant Durand’s Line, about attempts to map Afghanistan, are quite funny. Others, like David Edgar’s chilling Black Tulips, about the Russian occupation, are not. Many ask audiences to reconsider the current conflict in light of historical factors, and countless speeches resonate with contemporary headlines and WikiLeaks, such as a remark from the earliest play, Stephen Jeffreys’s Bugles at the Gates of Jalalabad, set in 1842, in which a character says, “This country is a death trap for foreign armies.”

Over the summer, Kent, his writers, and co-director Indhu Rubasingham have readied the piece for its American debut. Most tinkering is slight: cutting a reference to a Brit broadcaster, changing a discussion of Champions League football to a conversation about the banking crisis. Concessions to an American audience, Kent notes, are minor. “Our troops are fighting alongside your troops,” he said, “and we should be able to share this.”

'The Great Game,' December 1 to 19, NYU Skirball Center, 566 LaGuardia Place, publictheater.org

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