Long, Long Weight

28. October, 2010 Theater No comments

One hundred and sixty-eight years of Afghan history in seven hours isn’t a bad bargain, even if it’s a heck of a long time to sit in the theater. A much-anticipated import from London’s Tricycle Theatre, The Great Game: Afghanistan tells the story of ill-fated British, Russian and American incursions into that country from 1842 to the present day through twelve half-hour plays by various British playwrights and several shorter monologues and verbatim tidbits from assorted present-day experts. It’s an exhausting undertaking, especially as seen in one marathon viewing on Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Stage, starting at 11:30 a.m. and ending at 10:30 p.m.

Danny Rahim, Raad Rawi and Michael Cochrane in The Great Game: Afghanistan. Photo by John Haynes.

Some directed by Tricycle artistic director Nicolas Kent and others by Indhu Rubasingham or Rachel Grunwald, the plays are written by different playwrights and arranged chronologically by the era each one depicts, so there’s no overall dramatic arc, either to the series as a whole or to any particular cluster. Of the three parts, only the middle one ends with any real impact, which is only because the last play in that section happens to be one of the most brutal ones. Even the very end of the series just sort of trails off on an unresolved note. This is probably intentional, as a way of saying it’s up to us to make up our minds, but the last play, Simon Stephens’s “Canopy of Stars,” is pretty tedious.

Even so, the historical information you glean from the show builds on itself, adding to the sense that history seems to repeat itself. The same actor who plays a deposed king on the run in 1929, talking about what he’ll do when he becomes king again, returns as an overthrown president in hiding in 1996, again talking about what he’ll do differently next time he’s president. When people in 2010 talk about border disputes around “Durand’s Line,” you remember that it’s exactly what Durand himself was warned would happen when he drew the line way back in 1893.

Show designer Pamela Howard’s set is dominated by a large half-painted mural showing ancient figures with crowns and turbans, a towering Buddha carved into a cliff, and soldiers both medieval and modern. The opening sequence by Siba Shakib, set in Kabul in 1996, shows the muralist (Vincent Ebrahim) continuing to work on the painting until shots ring out and Taliban soldiers come to shut him down. Although he protests that he’s just trying to teach them their history, they drag him off.

Cut to 1842 and Stephen Jeffreys’s “Bugles at the Gates of Jalalabad.” After the slaughter of 16,000 British and Indian soldiers and civilians, four British buglers keep a lonely vigil to signal to any unlikely survivors that may be out there. “This country is a death trap for foreign armies,” one of them says, expressing a truism that will be repeated for centuries. Meanwhile an upper-class woman reads a book off to the side of the stage, giving her own account of the massacre. Although it takes a while to settle into the stylized staging enough to really get who she’s supposed to be, Jemma Redgrave (yes, of those Redgraves—daughter of Corin and niece of Vanessa and Lynn) commands attention as a noblewoman taken prisoner by Afghan forces. But things really get going when Nabil Elouahabi appears as an erudite and somewhat smart-alecky Afghan who quizzes the soldiers on what they think they’re doing there.

In another short segment by Shakib, Ebrahim and Shereen Martineau rhapsodize about Malalai, an Afghan peasant woman in the 1880s who chastened Afghan forces not to lose courage in a difficult battle against the British. Set in 1893, Ron Hutchinson’s “Durand’s Line” is particularly entertaining, largely because of Raad Rawi’s delightful performance as the Amir Abdur Rahman, who muses nonchalantly about how absurd it is to think that you can change a country and its people by drawing lines on a map—particularly ones that run right through tribal homelands like Waziristan. Sir Henry Mortimer Durand, the British foreign minister of India (a suitably stuffy Michael Cochrane), is insistent that the British-installed Amir sign off on the new border between India and Afghanistan—that is, unless he’d rather be left to the mercies of Russia. Rick Warden tries to keep the negotiations from getting out of hand as a self-effacing cockney engineer. The Amir warns that trying to impose national borders on a tribal land will only lead to endless bloodshed, and of course he’s right.

After the first of five intermissions comes the first of a series of “Verbatim” segments in which present-day experts, journalist William Dalrymple (Cochrane) to General McChrystal (Daniel Betts) weigh in on the state of the country and what’s to be done about it. (Increased dialogue, mostly—talk to the shepherds, talk to the Taliban.) “Are we in our ninth year in Afghanistan, or are we on our first year for the ninth time?” asks a senior American staff officer played by Karl Davies, and it’s the type of question that could have been asked in almost any era in the cycle.

Also set in the present day, Amit Gupta’s “Campaign” is a curious and disposable digression from the largely chronological structure, in which a Pakistani professor (Rawi) is quizzed by a mysterious English government consultant (Tom McKay) about 1920s Afghan foreign minister Mahmud Tarzi’s anti-British newspaper, which might make a useful propaganda tool in promoting homegrown secular liberal democracy today.

It does, however, provide a teensy bit of background for Joy Wilkinson’s “Now Is the Time” that follows. In 1929 the just-deposed king Amanullah Khan’s car is stuck in the snow, with Tarzi and Soroya, Amanullah’s wife and Tarzi’s daughter, inside. They’re all jumpy, afraid that someone’s going to assassinate them any minute. Soroya (a forceful Martineau) is poisonously furious at her husband (a suave, poised Daniel Rabin), while Tarzi (a wearily amiable Ebrahim) tries to play peacemaker. This drags on far too long as they wait for their British driver (Betts) to return from sending a telegram and makes for an anticlimactic end to Part One.

Part Two, “1979-1996: Communism, the Mujahideen & the Taliban,” starts and ends particularly strongly. It kicks off with David Edgar’s “Black Tulips,” a series of briefings to newly arrived Soviet soldiers in Afghanistan every year or two in reverse order from 1987 to 1981, so the bitter, hopeless commanders become gradually fresher and more optimistic in the way they talk about the exact same aspects of Afghan culture. One key observation, that “most live in circumstances more or less unchanged since the Middle Ages,” speaks to the absurdity of foreign invaders thinking they’re going to be the ones to finally change things. There’s no attempt to take on Russian accents in this piece, as it’s understood that the Soviet solders of the 1980s may as well be the British ones of the 1840s or 2000s—or, of course, American ones. (The line “the great surge ordered by our new dynamic leadership exceeds all expectations” sounds familiar for a reason.)

One highlight of this play is Martineau as a laconic interpreter who summarizes the florid greeting given by a representative of the Afghan government (spoken in English for comic effect, though it’s understood he isn’t really speaking English any more than the Russians are) into the tersest possible form. Although initially quite funny, this device turns devastating as she starts to lose the thread and stops translating during the really important part, that the people won’t respond well to armed foreigners, and finally breaks down remembering her own family’s experience with some soldiers.

Covering the same period from 1981 to 1986, Lee Blessing’s “Wood for the Fire” shifts the focus to Pakistan, where the CIA is funneling money and arms to the Afghan anti-Soviet resistance. Station chief Owens (Warden with a clipped, believable American accent) insists on meeting the mujahideen leaders he’s funding, but Ebrahim as a marvelously smooth and stern general of the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence is coolly unresponsive and keeps changing the subject to India. It’s essential to Pakistan that everything goes through them, and they parcel it out to the Afghan fighters however they see fit. Danny Rahim has strong downbeat intensity as Abdul, a commander in the Afghan resistance who complains that all the good stuff is going to the religious fundamentalist rebels who’d turn on him in a heartbeat, and Cloudia Swann is grating as an unnaturally perky deputy station chief who assumes a childish air of authority but seems unfit to take charge of a sorority mixer. Despite mostly strong performances, the play feels overlong and a bit like a way of filling time between stronger pieces, but it certainly makes its point when Abdul warns that if the US doesn’t stick around to make sure the country gets back on its feet, it’ll come back to haunt us.

After intermission David Greig’s “Miniskirts of Kabul” injects an odd bit of magical realism into the proceedings. It’s 1996, and President Najibullah has been holed up in a UN compound since he was deposed in 1992. Unbeknownst to him today is the day the Taliban will take Kabul and drag him to a particularly gruesome public execution. An Englishwoman shows up unexpectedly. “This is not a normal visit,” she says when he asks what she’s doing there in a city under siege. “I’m imagining you.” Not only does he accept this strange state of affairs with resigned equanimity, but he answers all her questions about his life and crimes with unbelievable candor, and asks her to use her imagining powers to rustle up some liquor, and maybe the Spice Girls while she’s at it. Rabin is intense, forthright, proud and flirtatious as Najibullah, and Redgrave quizzes him and listens with rapt attention laced with gnawing discomfort over some of his answers. Despite the grim setting, the play has a few very funny moments: When she sees that he’s been working out despite being cooped up, she asks, “Do you have a regime?” The Q&A format makes it one of the most informative plays, but the fantastical setup seems a bit frivolous. The nameless woman is a writer, but she comes off more like an upper middle-class British housewife who fell asleep reading a book about the Taliban takeover and would really like to think that he’s a much nicer man than he is. “My country has been imagined enough,” he scoffs, referring back to “Durand’s Line,” and he’s not wrong.

Shakib returns us to the painter and his mural, now being whitewashed by the Taliban who warn, “It is forbidden to paint any human being, let alone a woman.”  Shakib also contributes an eloquent first-person monologue about Queen Gohar Shahd, an ancient queen of Herat played by Sheena Bhattessa, who boasts of ordering that girls be educated as well as boys, an issue that’s still by no means resolved today.

But the real meat of the second part comes at the end, in Colin Teevan’s powerful “The Lion of Kabul.” In an emotionally raw performance by Martineau, a United Nations director of operations—herself a Muslim, but not Muslim enough for Kabul in 1998—has to go meet two Taliban leaders in a zoo at night to find out what happened to two UN aid workers who disappeared. Elouahabi is chilling as a mullah who adamantly refuses to address her directly, speaking through her male subordinate instead (a feelingly conflicted Rawi). Ebrahim is amusing as a senile elder judge whom the mullah makes a show of consulting while remaining firmly in charge. Let’s just say the meeting does not go well, and the lion of the title is not a metaphor.

Perhaps because the plays set in the past have so eloquently spoken to the present day, the segments of Part Three, covering 1996 to 2010, are the least memorable of the lot. A sort of sequel to “Wood for the Fire,” Ben Ockrent’s “Honey” has a CIA operative (Cochrane with a froggy-voiced American accent and a curious habit of saying “Osamar bin Larden” in one of the very few times that guy is mentioned) asking the Afghan defense minister Ahmad Shah Massoud (a charming Rabin) to get the US’s Stinger missiles back over tea. Largely focusing on the friendship between Massoud and the narrator, diplomat Masood Khalili (Ebrahim), the play is tediously slow-paced but ends with a bang.

After a rather dramatic set change to mark September 11, Abi Morgan’s “The Night Is Darkest Before the Dawn” focuses on an Afghan woman’s (the indispensable Martineau) struggle to convince her relatives to let their daughters be educated, trying to get enough girls together to qualify for a foreign-funded school. Rabin gives a fiery performance as her bitter brother-in-law, a poppy farmer, and Elouahabi has a commanding swagger as an Afghan commandant. Although also slow and overlong, it makes a poignant end to the first act of Part Three.

Peppered with two more “Verbatim” sections, the second act is the slowest of the lot. Despite fine performances by Redgrave as a charity organizer and Rabin as a volatile warlord, Richard Bean’s “On the Side of Angels” speaks to the uphill battle facing NGOs in Afghanistan, but almost with a shrug.

Set in 2010, “Canopy of Stars” opens with a long conversation between a jaded sergeant (McKay) and a newly arrived private (Davies) about what they think they’re doing in Afghanistan. It provides an interesting parallel to the other British soldiers’ similar exchange in Jeffreys’s cycle-opening “Bugles,” but the later dialogue doesn’t really add any new or interesting perspectives and drags on far too long. It’s the sort of thing we hear in every contemporary war movie. Then the sergeant returns home to his alienated wife (Swann) who’s frustrated that he’s so distant and says he’s not doing any good over there and he should just stay home and let all the Afghanis die for all she cares. You sympathize with her on principle because it’s a horrible thing to wait at home for someone who may be dead for all you know, but the way she expresses it is so irritating that you can see why he doesn’t want to deal with it.

Although for the most part excellently performed and staged, the cycle is more satisfying as an educational experience than it is dramatically. But that’s reason enough to understand why the epic cycle made such an impact in its original London run last year and continues to do so on its tour of the States. Even the program for the show is a keeper, packed with valuable information. Even if you think you know a little bit about Afghanistan, the overwhelming weight of these scattershot glimpses of the last couple of centuries can’t help but give you a much deeper understanding of the plight the country’s in today, and our plight in having gotten involved there at all. It’s not a hopeful picture that these theatrical muralists paint, nor is it always even an enjoyable one, but it leaves a mark on the viewer.

The Great Game: Afghanistan
Through November 7
Berkeley Repertory Theatre
2015 Addison St.
Berkeley, CA

Shows #110, 111 & 112 of 2010, attended October 22.

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