The Afghan Road Show


Back when Declan Donnellan accepted Tony Kushner’s invitation to direct his new play, Homebody/Kabul, no one could have predicted the emotional response the word Taliban would trigger a year later. “I did feel strange flying into New York and coming downtown and doing a play about Afghanistan,” says the Irish-born, London-based director. “But we don’t really know what we feel, and the names for our feelings are inadequate. A work of art is one of the things we do because we’re emotionally illiterate. One thing I would say to the actors is that, if it’s Romeo and Juliet, Juliet doesn’t know what she feels either. She’s never played the scene before and is not really an expert at being Juliet.”

Homebody/Kabul didn’t have to be set in Afghanistan to pique Donnellan’s interest. Kushner’s play, now premiering at New York Theatre Workshop, was written long before the events of September 11. “It’s incredibly simple—Tony is just a fantastic writer,” Donnellan explains. “You read half a page, and you’re hooked into this incredibly generous and actually undidactic imagination that’s like an instant cure for depression. Depression is a lack of curiosity—being uninterested in other people, other things, other cultures. There’s something about a great work of art that unleashes your natural curiosity.”

High praise indeed from the man who once banned Kushner from rehearsals of his own play. The two men’s paths first crossed in 1991, when Donnellan directed Millennium Approaches, part one of Kushner’s Angels in America, at London’s Royal National Theatre. Donnellan had never worked with a living director before. Though little known in the U.S., the director had made an international reputation by mounting invigorating productions of Shakespeare and the classics for Cheek by Jowl, the touring company he founded in 1981 with his life partner and designer, Nick Ormerod. (Donnellan has since added just one other contemporary writer to his résumé—Stephen Sondheim.)

The high-profile success of the London Angels arguably helped propel Kushner’s play to Broadway, but relations between playwright and director during rehearsals were volatile. In 1993, when staging Perestroika, part two of Angels, Donnellan kept Kushner away from rehearsals altogether. “I contractually refused him permission to cross the Atlantic, and he punished me by writing extra scenes and characters and faxing them to me,” laughs Donnellan. “We’ve become incredibly close friends over the last 10 years. [The tension] is rather difficult to explain, but I think Tony goes into his plays one way, and I can end up in the same place by coming at it a very different way. It does chime very deeply with me, what he writes.”

Homebody/Kabul begins in 1998, shortly after the Clinton administration bombed suspected terrorists camps. “There has been no line added or removed to make the play more or less topical,” says Donnellan of the current script. “Certain lines do appear to be eerily prescient if they are taken out of context.” In Kushner’s June 2001 draft, there’s a specific reference to Osama bin Laden, and one distraught character makes a wild prediction that the Taliban will come to New York. “In rehearsal we have to de-resonate those lines,” says Donnellan. “The English characters in the play [there are no Americans] are as ignorant about Afghanistan as on the whole we all were before the blowing up of the Buddhas.”

In the play’s first act (a monologue written for English actress Kika Markham that was performed in 1999), an Englishwoman reveals her fascination with Afghanistan as she reads passages from an outdated Kabul guidebook. In the next two acts, the audience journeys to Kabul with the woman’s husband and daughter to discover a world in sharp contrast to the romanticized one conjured by the travel guide. “The play is about the Taliban in the same way Angels was about AIDS,” says Donnellan. “Angels used AIDS as a pretext to examine huge things like human love and sorrow.”

Three years ago Donnellan and Ormerod temporarily suspended work with the peripatetic Cheek by Jowl, using the hiatus to take on a variety of jobs, including directing and designing Cameron Mackintosh’s mega-musical Martin Guerre. The two achieved greater success with a series of international productions— a Russian-language staging of Pushkin’s Boris Godunov in Moscow (currently on tour), Corneille’s Le Cid in the original French at the Avignon Festival, and Verdi’s Falstaff at last summer’s Salzburg Festival. Donnellan’s experiences with Russian actors resulted in a book on acting titled The Target, which has been published in translation in Russia and will soon be published here in English. “The book started with a commission 13 years ago,” Donnellan explains, “but English actors are so frightened of theory. They want to learn these things, but they’re terrified to be seen as taking themselves too seriously. It was much easier thinking about Russian actors—they laugh a lot, but they’re actually very interested in the analysis of action, for example.”

The New York production of Homebody/Kabul marks the first time the 48-year-old director has worked with actors in America. (The cast includes, among others, Linda Emond, Dylan Baker, Kelly Hutchinson, and Bill Camp.) Next year, Donnellan and Ormerod plan to revive Cheek by Jowl with a U.K. production of the play. Donnellan will also be starting as director of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s first acting academy.

In addition to his talent for working with actors from different cultures and acting traditions, one of Donnellan’s great directing strengths is infusing well-worn texts with a sense of improvisation and immediacy, as New York audiences who caught his BAM productions of As You Like It and The Duchess of Malfi will attest. Describing his approach to a scene set at the Grave of Cain in Homebody/Kabul, Donnellan illustrates another hallmark: respect for the mysteries of a multi-layered text. “The young woman finds herself at this extraordinary site in Kabul, which is said to be the place where the biblical Cain was buried. The first crime—a brother’s murder. This is where she thinks her mother is going to meet her. The different onion layers of meaning in that moment are wonderful and not to be pinned down. As far as I am an artist, it’s for me to draw a frame around things and bring the audience’s attention to the ambiguity and ambivalence of what lies within it. Not to make everything clear, but to make it clearly ambiguous. There is an honor in that.”