“I am going to Berkeley,” I told my neighbor, “to watch 11 hours of plays about Afghanistan.”
“What?” she replied. “Good God, why?” As an afterthought, however, she added, “You go, girl.”
And so I went.
I should point it, it turned out to be only seven and a half hours of plays. There were lunch and dinner breaks between the three parts of “The Great Game: Afghanistan.”
The ‘what’ of it was fairly straightforward: Berkeley Repertory Theater was launching the West Coast premiere of this cycle of 12 short scripts by different playwrights, which caused a a sensation when it debuted in London. Produced by the Tricycle Theatre in London, supported by the British Council, “The Great Game” garnered rave reviews and adjectives like “astonishing” “fascinating,” and “mind-blowing.”
For two weeks the British cast is performing the trilogy at equally ground-breaking Berkeley Rep, while Tricycle Theatre hosts the Rep’s acclaimed production of “Tiny Kushner.” It’s not necessary to watch all three parts in one day, as I did, but it is quite an experience.
As to why: Tricycle has a reputation for its plays that examine contemporary issues Director Nicholas Kent set out to examine on-going puzzle that is Afghanistan, the remote and mysterious land caught in the struggle for power between great nations who must tangle as well with traditions and tribes they hardly comprehend. The term, “The Great Game,” was coined by Rudyard Kipling a century ago to describe the bloody battles for control of Central Asia that continue today.
“The original intent in mounting ‘The Great Game,’ was to inform audiences of the history of Western involvement in Afghanistan since the early 19th century until the present day,” Kent said. “We very much hope that this trilogy and the theater can play its part in continuing to stimulate the public’s discussion and debate on what is currently the most important focus of UK and American foreign policy.”
The dominance one can hardly question: All during the drive to Berkeley, Afghanistan kept surfacing in NPR news reports: Had fraud invalidated the recent elections; was it necessary for the Afghan government to negotiate with the Taliban; why was Secretary of State Hilary Clinton declaring Pakistan is the U.S.’s greatest ally in defeating terrorism?
The drone of these news stories, day after day, can be numbing. Set against it is the fact that a 21-year-old Napa man, Army Spc. Chase Stanley, died last July in this conflict.
He was one of 62,415 troops from 46 countries currently in Afghanistan, and to the military fatalities must be added the deaths of thousands of civilians — and thousands more if one goes back to the beginnings of this “Great Game,” according to information in the “The Great Game” program.
Theatrical questions arise: Can ‘entertainment’ be made of this? Is this issue so important one can dispense with entertainment and just be enlightened? Is it possible to entertain and inform? Is it possible that entertainment can prove more enlightening that “just the facts?” Twelve playwrights on one vast, complex, bewildering topic: We were going to watch blind men describing an elephant?
“The Great Game: Afghanistan” begins with gunshots. Men in turbans carrying rifles swarm onto the stage to confront a solitary mural painter. He implores them: “We are all Afghans; this is our country. I want to tell the stories we all share.” He is dragged off the stage, but his mural remains on stage throughout the following pieces of “The Great Game.”
“Part one: Invasions and Independence, (1842-29)” begins with “Bugles at the Gate of Jalalbad” — the British arrival in an untamed country that had them misfortune to be located between Imperial Russia and Britain’s India. Part two is “Communism, the Mujahdeen and the Taliban (1980-1996).” Part three “Enduring Freedom, 1996-2010” concludes “Canopy of Stars,” one modern young soldier confronting a buddy before a battle and then his wife back at home.
In between it is as if a treasure box has opened — one volume holding many tales. Figures step off these pages, from the indomitable Lady Florintia Sale was held captive in Afghanistan in 1842, to a frantic CIA operative in the late 1990s trying to buy back missiles that have landed with the wrong recipients, from 15th century Queen Gohar Shahd, who ordered 200 of her ladies to be married to scholars to the doomed King Amanullah Khan, (1919-1920) whose progressive efforts for his country led to a rebellion of chieftains, instigated by the British; from the wily amir debating with a British diplomat on why he has to create borders to a modern day Pakistani professor, bewildered by conversations with British
And as the playwrights flash these mirror images of a debacle, they equally accomplish the improbable: It’s seven and a half hours of theater that is enlightening, tragic, comic and above all riveting.
And all through it runs the thread of soldiers’ question: “What are we doing here?”
Eleven hours later, on the drive back to Napa from Berkeley, slightly foggy-headed but oddly exhilarated, I was listening to NPR again.
The news stories were the same as they’d been that morning: the election fraud, Hilary Clinton and the Pakistanis, could the U.S. hold Kandahar, and can anyone negotiate with the Taliban?
These complex stories, however, had acquired faces and voices, amid drumbeats of history and human folly. And that, in the end, is the affect of great, of brilliant theater.
“How was it?” my neighbor asked me.
You go, girl.