Director Nicolas Kent talks about The Great Game: Afghanistan

I attended the all-day presentation of The Great Game: Afghanistan, and, during lunch, met some of its performers. One of them said “You should meet him. This is his baby.” And, with that, I met Nicolas Kent, Artistic Director of Tricycle Theatre, and director of 6 of the 12 plays comprising The Great Game. We spoke later, and what follows is both that conversation and a piece he wrote on the project for the Tricycle Theatre Web site, used here with his permission (it appears in quotes).

“There is no theatre in Britain that punches so consistently above its size and weight than the Tricycle.”
- The Daily Telegraph, 2009

Nicolas Kent (Photo: Courtesy of Shakespeare Theatre Company)

Lorraine: Tell us about Tricycle and political theatre.

“The Tricycle Theatre has established a unique reputation for presenting plays that reflect the cultural diversity of its community; in particular plays by Black, Irish, Jewish, Asian and South African writers, as well as for responding to contemporary issues and events with its ground-breaking ‘tribunal plays’, and political work.

The Tricycle tribunal plays began in 1994 with the staging of Half the Picture by Richard Norton Taylor and John McGrath (a dramatization of the Scott Arms to Iraq Inquiry), which was the first play ever to be performed in the Houses of Parliament.”

American audiences have had the chance to see Tricycle’s work: “In 2004, the critically acclaimed Guantanamo Honor Bound to Defend Freedom, written by Victoria Brittain and Gillian Slovo from spoken evidence, transferred from the Tricycle to the West End and New York (where Archbishop Tutu appeared in the production). In 2006, the Tricycle presented a performance of the play at the Houses of Parliament and on Washington’s Capitol Hill. It has since been performed around the world and in the US through the ‘Guantanamo Reading Project’, which develops community productions of readings of the play.”

Lorraine: Why Afghanistan?

“In 2008, when I commissioned the plays that make this trilogy, Iraq had been the big story for the world’s media for most of the preceding 15 years. For a short period in the autumn of 2001, just after 9/11, Afghanistan took centre stage. But after the fall of the Taliban both Bush and Blair ensured that the world’s attention moved swiftly back to Iraq.

Almost every day in those past 15 years, Iraq was in the headlines, and artists, writers, film?makers and theatres produced much work about the invasion and its aftermath.

Even four years ago, no one was paying much attention to the war in Afghanistan, and the British Defence Secretary was committing British troops to the ISAF force in Helmand province to protect the reconstruction. However two years later, the world’s political focus was very slowly but inexorably swinging back towards Afghanistan. The insurgency was strengthening, increasing numbers of British soldiers had been killed and injured, and the West looked dug in for the long haul.

It was becoming clear Afghanistan was going to be the main focus of British, European and American policy for at least the next decade. But still two years ago, not only was there almost no public debate about this, there was very little reporting and almost no artistic response – except a handful of novels, including the work of Khaled Hosseini.

I knew vaguely about the three Anglo/Afghan wars, the British and Russian imperialist ‘Great Game’ manoeuvres, and something about the factions of the Mujahideen fighting the civil war after the Soviet withdrawal. But there were huge gaps in my knowledge of Afghanistan’s history, and the causes of where we are now. And I was sure I was not alone in this ignorance.

Information sparks debate, and theatre can often be the catalyst.

Nicolas: I don’t know if you are aware, but there will by the end of January, be 150,000 American troops in Afghanistan, with another 30,000 – 40,000  European and other coalition allies from Indonesia and Japan  Altogether a force of  around 200,000 let alone all the aid workers who are there. The casualties in deaths and wounded are absolutely enormous. Add to that the casualties suffered by the civilian population and the effect of their displacement, which is spilling over into Pakistan.

I feel it is the biggest issue facing western policy makers.

Lorraine: I note that at the Tricycle Theatre, you are now presenting Tony Kushner’s one acts (Tiny Kushner) – certainly part of the trend to shorter plays and shortened evenings in the theatre.  What made you think that audiences would embrace these longer pieces, even to the extent of signing up for the full immersion of seeing all 3 in one day?

“Some years ago the Tricycle had produced a trilogy Lovesong for Ulster by Bill Morrison, which looked at Northern Ireland’s politics, and from that experience I knew that day long theatre events could be both exciting and stimulating this feeling was reinforced in April 2008 by seeing the Royal Shakespeare Company’s ‘Histories’ season at the Roundhouse. The other experience was a response we had to the Darfur crisis when, three years ago, the Tricycle commissioned six dramatists from our Bloomberg Playwrights group to come up with ten minute plays, and all the writers rose enthusiastically to the challenge. The resulting evenings played to a week of full houses.”

Nicolas: To do [the story of Afghanistan] in 2 hours seemed woefully inadequate. I’m hoping that audiences will not just see the play and walk away. But will engage in arguments and discussions, maybe getting involved with Afghanistan situations, blogging about it, discussing, reading about it, doing all these things.

This project has really been a wake-up call, I suppose, for a lot of us. Myself included. I didn’t know enough and wanted to know more. I think that theater has the power to make people think and to change their viewpoints.

It is much too easy to hear or see something, turn the page, or switch off the television program  and not pay attention to it. We’re in a 5 minute culture. We are saying to people, sit down, be with us, think about it, say what we left out, but absolutely take part.

Lorraine: How did you select the 12 playwrights?  Did they choose the subjects of their pieces?

“Initially I did a trawl for writers, including novelists, from the sub?continent, but apart from Siba Shakib I met with little success. Next I turned to ‘political’ writers working here or in America.” Eventually, with the help of literary agents, and playwrights already connected with Tricycle, he had his writing team.

Nicolas: Some of them chose the areas they wanted to do, knowing it was about Afghanistan since 1842. For instance, Stephen Jeffreys (Bugles at the Gates of Jalalbad) wanted to go way further back before 1842, but I persuaded him to go somewhere near 1842.

David Edgard (Black Tulips) always wanted to do the Russians. David Greig (Miniskirts of Kabul) also wanted to do the Russians but was more interested in the aftermath concerning  Najibullah [last President under the Soviet backed government of Afghanistan.] Others, I assigned subjects to.  Sometimes I came up with a specific. Colin Teevan  (The Lion of Kabul) knew about the zoo but I gave him the idea of the UN aid worker fighting for jurisdiction with the Taliban, so between us we came up that one.

I said to Ben Ockrent (Honey) that I was looking for a play about Massoud Khalili. I gave Joy Wilkerson the choice of periods between 1920 and 1950 and when she came up with Now is the Time [set in 1929]. I thought it posed a number of questions that needed clarifying so I asked Amit Gupta (Campaign) to create a frame for it.

Lorraine: Who decides the real life characters and their speeches which get updated in the Verbatims?

Nicolas: We do an interview that lasts about a quarter of an hour with the characters. I have discussions with a number of journalists who are specialists on Afghanistan. Christina Lamb has written “The Sewing Circles of Herat: My Afghan Year” and written for the Sunday Times.   Lyse Duscet is one of the leading broadcasters on Afghanistan and works for the BBC, so she got the General McChrystal interview and I’m hoping she will get one for us with [Commander] Petraeus.

David Loyn got us the interview with the Taliban commander and the BBC correspondent  Richard  Norton-Taylor, who I have been working with for about 15 years now, takes the transcripts and edits them down into short bites, and between us we arrange how they are presented.

Lorraine: Your characters bring us great understanding of the situation from many points of view – from Afghan artists, and civilians, Afghan leadership, British and Russian fighting forces.  But there is no play centered around characters who can illuminate us about the people who fight with the Taliban forces.  Did you consider such a piece?

Nicolas: Those who fight on the Taliban side, you mean? I think the Taliban viewpoint is there in The Lion of Kabul, but the Taliban is not just one organization. It comes, as you know, from students. The Taliban today is in some ways the creation of Pakistan ISI, but that does come across in the play. The Taliban is rather like the broad spectrum of Christianity in which you could be a Roman Catholic, or Christian Scientist, or protestant, evangelist, or born-again Christian.

It would take a whole other cycle to deal with every variation of Muslim fundamentalism of which the extremist Taliban elements are only one side. As you can imagine, it’s very difficult to get any cooperation from the Taliban, as there aren’t any quarters you can go to.

Lorraine: What has been the response from the Afghan and Muslim communities?

Nicolas: The Afghan community absolutely loved it. They feel their country is greatly misunderstood. Overall, people have been enormously flattered that we have done this. When we did it in London, we had a festival with films, art, ceramics, and Sufi music. It was quite small but actually we learned that it was the biggest festival of Afghan culture ever to have taken place in London so you realize how little that country  and its culture are celebrated and paid attention to. So from that point of view, people are enormously pleased we are doing it.

A lot of people feel Islam is completely misunderstood and therefore anything which explains a little more about the Islamic nations is positive.

Lorraine: Touring with The Great Game: Afghanistan must be a massive project. I assume you travel with your own technicals (set, and crew.)

Nicolas: There are actually 19 of us including the technical team and 14 actors.

Lorraine: Are you touring with the set?.

Nicolas: Yes we are. Everywhere. Some of it was flown in, and some shipped from England.

Lorraine: It must be awfully expensive.

Nicolas: We are more than £150,000 short on the whole tour. Anyone wishing to help could write us a check. Sent straight to Tricycle. I promise we won’t have an enormously wonderful meal. We’ll use it for the tour.

The British Council was enormously helpful and each of the four theatres were as well. The reason we are short is because we were going to UCLA and had arranged everything but in the last minute they dropped out. It was frustrating because the two weeks we were to spend at UCLA we could have gone somewhere else, but they only cancelled their festival 3 months ago which wasn’t enough time to make other arrangements.

So we go to the Guthrie, then to Berkeley, then on to New York at the Public Theatre around Thanksgiving, then home.

Lorraine: Was anything been changed for the US tour?

Nicolas: One or two phrases, but that’s it. We’ve tried to make it clearer to people. In the last group of plays, there are a small amount of phrases changed to make it easier on American audiences. After all, we are two nations separated by a common language.

The last piece does give people problems with its dialect from the working class district of Manchester. We’re changing it slowly. We changed it last night a little, but it’s written in the rhythms of that dialect and so the minute you get out of those rhythms, you have little problems.

Lorraine: When we met, you mentioned how much you like the Washington audiences.

Nicolas: Yes. We all came thinking that American audiences would be quite difficult  .. that audiences just didn’t get things. And what we’ve come to learn is that actually American audiences seem to us to be more on the ball, more intelligent and more willing to go with the plays than the English audiences.

Americans are less informed about the early history but are well up to date on the Russian plays because people see the parallels between the Russian surge and your great surge.  And well up to date with the modern plays   You’ve all been extraordinarily wonderful and energizing.  We’ve loved it.  It’s been amazing playing here.

You feel we are playing to a hyper political audience here. We’d love to have policymakers there. We know congress people are interested. We’ve had a lot of text messages about it. I hope that our last show on Sunday is packed.

[In London], we had the head of the British army in to see it. Actually, he was the Supreme Commander of all the forces, including the Americans. He said he would have been a much better general if he had seen the plays before going to Afghanistan.

Lorraine: What are you and your cast most enjoying about being here?

Nicolas: The weather!  The weather! The weather!.  It’s grey and rainy in London. And the hospitality, museums and the sights. We’re on a segue tour on Thursday so if you see 14 actors on segues, I’d stay well clear.

Related:

Tim’s review of The Great Game: Afghanistan, Part 1
Tim’s review of The Great Game: Afghanistan, Part 2
Tim’s review of The Great Game: Afghanistan, Part 3

Tricycle Theatre

The National Tour:

Shakespeare Theatre Company
Sidney Harman Hall
610 F Street NW, Washington, DC 20004
September  15 –26, 2010

The Guthrie Theater
818 South 2nd Street
Minneapolis, MN 55415
September 29-October 17, 2010

Berkeley Repertory Theatre
2025 Addison Street
Berkeley, CA 94704
October 22-November 7, 2010

The Public Theatre
425 Lafayette Street
New York, NY 10003
December 1-December 19, 2010

You can follow along on the tour with the Tricycle Blog

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