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

Fall Theater Picks

Orlando
Performances begin September 8

There are hermaphrodites, transmen, MTFs, and the unclassifiably intersexed. There are hirs and zhes. But prepare to require a whole new slew of nouns and pronouns when Sarah Ruhl debuts her adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s gender-bending novel Orlando. The story, which Rebecca Taichman directs, concerns a noble blessed with several centuries of eternal youth who lives as a man, a woman, and something in between. Will it make theater herstory? Classic Stage Company, 136 East 13th Street, classicstage.org

Angels in America
Performances begin September 14

Oil spills, ranting tea partiers, two ongoing wars—if there are still angels in America, their guardianship is less than impressive. Nevertheless, the Signature Theatre, having devoted its season to Tony Kushner, has decided it’s high time to revive his A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. Michael Greif will direct both parts of the six-hour play, which will run in repertory with a cast including Billy Porter, Zoe Kazan, and Zachary Quinto. Peter Norton Space, 555 West 42nd Street, signaturetheatre.org

The Pitmen Painters
Performances begin September 14

Though charcoal remains a popular artistic medium, coal mining and life drawing usually don’t see much crossover. Yet they intermingle significantly in this play by Lee Hall (the author of Billy Elliot), which comes fresh (minus the coal dust) from a hit London run. Hall excavates the true story of Northumbrian miners who took evening art classes and transformed their daily experience into a series of evocative canvases. Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street, manhattantheatreclub.com

A Life in the Theatre
Performances begin September 21

Last year’s Mamet fest was more of a Mamet fizzle: The revival of Oleanna shuttered abruptly, a bill of one-acts received scathing notices, Race has ended its run. Perhaps our most incensed playwright can regain his stride with this new production of his 1977 comedy, directed by the Atlantic Theater’s Neil Pepe. Paying tribute to an era of repertory drama now more or less vanished, the play features Patrick Stewart as a seasoned thesp and T.R. Knight as his ambitious protégé. Schoenfeld Theatre, 236 West 45th Street, atlantictheater.org

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