Is there any place in the world as remote to us as Afghanistan? We have been there nine years now, the uneasy guest of an uneasy host, and still we see the nation as through a glass darkly. The characters which we read about in our blogs and newspapers seem like knaves or lunatics, and it is a safe bet that their views of us are similarly unflattering. And yet we are forced to understand each other, linked together as we are by our recent calamity, as all people are forced to understand each other, linked together by the calamity which is modern life.
In a stupendously ambitious effort to shrink the gap, London’s Tricycle Theatre has managed to produce a triptych of plays, each of them composed of a smaller group of playlets, resulting in ninteen different pieces in all. Not all of it works, and in particular its verbatim reproductions of statements by modern historical figures seem pale and inauthentic. But the writing – by fourteen different playwrights – is crisp, considered and generally insightful, and the overall effect is powerful.
Invasions & Independence is the first of the trilogy, a seven-part rumination on the British occupation and its immediate aftermath. It begins in a viscerally satisfying way with Siba Shakib’s Monologue, in which an Afghan artist (Vincent Ebrahim) tries to explain the moral importance of his painting, which invoke the great heroes of Afghan history, to a pack of indifferent Taliban (Nabil Elouahabi, Daniel Rabin, Danny Rahim, and Raad Rawi). Thereafter, the artists who present Invasions & Independence try to do the same for us.
Three of the four central plays which make up Invasions and Independence are set between the British invasion of the Afghan territory in 1842 and the overthrow of King Amanullah Kahn in 1929. Two of them are full of insight: Durand’s Line (written by Ron Hutchinson) in particular throws important facts into sharp relief. It is the story of a meeting between Sir Henry Mortimer Durand (Michael Cochrane), the Foreign Minister of British India, and Abdur Rahman (Rawi), the British-created Amir of Afghanistan. Durand has convened this meeting for the purpose of drawing the nascent nation’s boundaries. We see instantly why the British want it – they need a buffer state between Russia and India, and they are counting on the Afghans to protect their flanks. At the same time we see immediately why Durand’s line will open up a world of hurt: Afghanistan is a made-up nation; a collection of nomadic tribes and ethnicities whose territorial claims against each other are uncertain and unresolved. Durand offers untold treasures to the Amir, including control of the opium trade, in return for his cooperation and Rahman eventually succumbs, as he knows he must, since the British are implacable. Cochrane seemed to me a bit overblown and blustery as the Foreign Minister (and, indeed, he represented a series of excessively angry characters throughout the production) but Rawi was spot-on as the shrewd and ironic Amir. Rick Warden also does a nice turn as the piano-playing engineer Thomas Salter Pyne, who is over this head in this primitive effort at nationbuilding and knows it.
Thirty-seven years later, the British are gone, and so is the royal house which succeeded them. In Now Is the Time (Joy Wilkinson) the time is 1929, and Amanullah Khan (Rabin), Amir of Afghanistan, is on the run from traditionalist forces who have rebelled against his reformist tendencies. Amanullah’s reforms were reasonable ones, from our perspective: he established a minimum age for marriage (many women were married at ten at the time, and some even earlier) and permitted coeducation. But, as Adrian Fenty has had occasion to learn recently, reasonable reforms can provoke unreasonable reactions, if they are not first blessed by the powerful. Amanullah’s wife Soroya (Shereen Martineau) and his father-in-law and trusted advisor Mahmud Tarzi (Ebrahim) are with him as he hot-foots it through the snowy mountains of Northern Afghanistan toward the Soviet Union, escorted by his trusted driver (Daniel Betts). The central question of the episode is the same as the central conflict of the whole production: what moral price are you willing to pay in order to be a player in the great game – to continue to exercise power in the face of implacable hostility. He anticipates a Soviet-backed return to power, but when he receives a cryptic telegram – “Received news of your plan for exile” – he suddenly learns what it is like not to be King any more. This is probably the best-written, most provocative story in Invasions & Independence, with superb performances (particularly from Rabin) and brilliant technical: the snowfall (Pamela Howard was the designer) was the very invocation of a dark and frozen death.
Invasions & Independence sets up Now Is the Time with Amit Gupta’s Campaign, an amusing present-day story in which James Kite, a British official of indeterminate authority (Tom McKay) proposes a propaganda campaign to lionize the memory of Tarzi. “I’m not a politician,” he explains to a skeptical visitor, Professor Tariq Khan (Rawi). “I’m the Special Advisor to the Minister.” It may be the Minister of Sinister that he’s advising, as it appears that his business is to write proposals in disappearing ink: “The left hand doesn’t need or want to know what the right hand’s doing, otherwise how does he deny knowledge later?” Tarzi was a reformer who urged Amanullah to do things at a slower pace, and Kite obviously wishes to use him as an emblem of what Westerners hope to accomplish in Afghanistan. The real goal of Campaign, however, appears to be expository: to let us know who Amanullah and Tarzi really were, and how their fate shows us the difficulty of bringing contemporary values into a nation with a Dark-Age mindset. “[A]ssume I know nothing; this is just a briefing,” Kite artlessly tell Khan, thus allowing Khan to speak to those of us in the audience who actually know nothing. This sort of thing could be deadly, but because of Gupta’s writing and the skill of the performers, particularly Rawi, it is not. Indeed, Professor Khan’s concise and incisive lecture could be part of a particularly rousing undergraduate course in the history of Central Asia, and it may occur to you – as it occurred to me – that Invasions & Independence as a whole could be a teaching tool more effective than a dozen college lectures. In addition to McKay and Rawi, Karl Davies performs effectively in a subordinate role, and Betts is fabulous as a brash American “observer” who appears to be fronting for Kite’s left hand.
Invasions & Independence opens, after Shakib’s Monologue, with Stephen Jeffreys’ Bugles at the Gates of Jalalabad, set in 1842, during the first British invasion. This is the piece which has received the most attention prior to the production, and it is stunningly romantic, beautifully written and well performed. The Brits have suffered a horrible massacre following an Afghan uprising in Kabul: of sixteen thousand British soldiers and camp followers, only one has survived. Four buglers – Betts, McKay, Warden and Davies – are dispatched to stand outside the sentry post at Jalalabad with instructions to periodically sound their horns to bring any other survivors to safety. Eventually they attract an Afghan native with some pointed questions (Elouahabi). Their story intermingles with that of Lady Florentia Sale (Jemma Redgrave), the wife of a British General, who recites the account of her captivity in Afghanistan from her diary, often seeming to comment directly on the bugler’s dilemmas. Sale, like many of the characters who appear in Invasions & Independence, was a real historical figure, and her diary became a bestseller in England. Bugles has a dreamlike quality to it, and the performances – particularly Elouahabi and Warden as a cynical grunt who is willing to say truths that others are afraid to hear – are excellent. Nonetheless, there is not much substance to it beyond its voice-of-doom atmospherics, and it is largely opinion without insight.
Shakib’s Duologue, in which Martineau and Ebrahim tell the story of the heroic Afghan woman Malalai, who roused a flagging Afghan resistance against the British, and a “verbatim” (edited by Richard Norton-Taylor), in which the recorded views of journalist William Dalrymple (Cochrane), General McChrystal (Betts) and a top aide (Davies), and former Oxfam Director Matthew Waldman (Warden) rather woodenly give their summaries of the contemporary status of the Afghan war, round out Invasions & Independence.
The Great Game, Part One: 1842-1930, Invasions & Independence:
By Siba Shakib
Directed by Nicolas Kent
Bugles at the Gates of Jalalabad
By Stephen Jeffreys
Directed by Indhu Rubasingham
By Siba Shakib
Directed by Rubasingham
By Ron Hutchison
Directed by Kent
Edited by Richard Norton-Taylor
By Amit Gupta
Directed by Kent
Now is the Time
By Joy Wilkinson
Directed by Kent
Produced by Tricycle Theatre and the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Harman Hall
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
The Great Game: Afghanistan continues thru Sept 26th. Consisting of three parts, each one can be seen alone, or seen sequentially on Saturday and Sunday. Click here for details.