The Great Game: Afghanistan
A 12-play cycle from England traces the tragic fortunes of a Middle Eastern nation.
Thu Dec 9 2010
Photograph: John Haynes
WESTERN PROMISES Rabin, second from left, endures "Enduring Freedom."
Time Out Ratings<strong>Rating: </strong>4/5
"Is it not our human right to reject your freedom? That is one human right you do not recognize." So reasons Khan (Nabil Elouahabi), a mullah in 1998 Kabul, Afghanistan. Khan is hearing the agonized plea of U.N. aid worker Rabia (Shereen Martineau) to bring the killers of two of her colleagues to justice—Western justice. His argument, that Rabia's notion of human dignity is meaningless in a sharia context, is not sophistry. How can one nation, or group of nations, impose even humanitarian concepts on another population without being seen as imperialist? That's the big idea we never forget in The Great Game: Afghanistan: the tragic folly of planting ideologies in barren soil.
A cycle of 12 plays and assorted monologues commissioned and staged by directors Nicholas Kent and Indhu Rubasingham for London's Tricycle Theatre, The Great Game is top-notch English political theater—with all the good and bad that implies. On the positive side, we have more than seven hours of intense, highly informative drama by seasoned authors (Lee Blessing, David Edgar, David Greig and others). These writers diligently (and not unskillfully) sketch episodes from 160 years of history: Afghan natives' slaughter of British troops in 1842, the drawing of borders in 1893, secular reforms in the 20th century, the disastrous Soviet occupation from 1979 to '89, and, of course, the rise of the Taliban and Al Qaeda in the past 15 years. A landlocked region torn between modernizers and orthodox Islamists, Afghanistan has suffered bloody waves of reform and fundamentalist revolt, lurching one step forward and recoiling two steps back.
However, given so much material, so many time periods and a 14-member company juggling dozens of roles, there is inevitable unevenness in the writing and performances (not to mention some truly hideous American accents). Still, the production boasts a strong cadre of English and Middle Eastern performers, including the gravely righteous Jemma Redgrave, as well as vibrant, muscular turns by Daniel Rabin, Rick Warden, Tom McKay and Raad Rawi. If scenes drag or actors lapse into melodramatic broadness, you can still savor the cumulative impact, forgiving the odd misweave in a magnificent carpet.
Skirball Center for the Performing Arts. By various authors. Dirs. Nicholas Kent and Indhu Rubasingham. With ensemble casts. 10hrs 35mins. Three intermissions plus two meal breaks.