The Great Game, Part III – 1996-2010, Enduring Freedom
Of all the moments of history, the one we understand least is the present. Thus The Great Game, Part III – 1996-2010, Enduring Freedom is wrapped in an amorphous unease, much as our current presence in Central Asia is. We know how the British and Soviet occupation ended, and that knowledge informs both the composition of the pieces which make up Parts I and II of The Great Game and our understanding of those pieces. But neither the playwrights nor the audience can approach the pieces which make up Enduring Freedom with the same degree of certainty, and some of the playwrights succumb to the temptation to substitute pathos for insight.
I say “Soviet occupation” but as a technical matter, they were in Afghanistan at the invitation of a government they helped to install, much as we are, and we will soon be in Afghanistan longer than the Soviets were. We helped to knock down a Taliban government which ruled by terror and torture, and now strive to provide education – particularly education to women – and freedom. But Najibullah, the last Communist President, was a reformer too, as we saw in Part II’s Miniskirts of Kabul, shortly before his execution and so was King Amanullah, as we saw shortly before his exile in Part I’s Now Is the Time. It didn’t count for much then.
So what is it that distinguishes the Americans (and British) from the ignoble, and unsuccessful, Soviets? The American presence in Afghanistan is grounded in the American concept of individual freedom and inherent rights – as is the American presence everywhere in the world. But this is a new concept in Afghanistan, and not fully accepted. Indeed, the title Enduring Freedom is somewhat of a pun; to some in Afghanistan, freedom is something to be endured until the foreigners can be pushed out. Denying that men have rights as individuals, a Mullah in Part II’s The Lion of Kabul says that they “only have rights as members of community. What is individual? Individual is leaf in wind. The community is tree and can withstand storm.” And in Richard Bean’s On the Side of the Angels, the third of four core playlets which make up Enduring Freedom, a British anti-poverty worker (Jemma Redgrave) vows that “I don’t want anything to do with Women’s Rights, human rights, children’s rights; rights are individualistic concepts and the one thing that Afghanistan doesn’t have, and has never had, is any individuals…All Afghans belong to a family, then a tribe, and then Islam. It’s not my job to change that.”
Ah, but job descriptions change all the time. Jackie (Redgrave), assisted by her loopy aide Graham (Tom McKay) and the Afghan Jalaluddin (Nabil Elouahabi), who is slightly besotted by all things Western, has as her mission persuading the local warlord and opium magnate Dawood (Daniel Rabin) to surrender the hundred acres he has stolen from his neighbors after they had temporarily fled the heavy fighting surrounding the overthrow of the Taliban. Jackie and her UN-backed colleagues are prepared to pay any price to achieve their objective – any price, that is, except the one Dawood eventually exacts. This is less a story about a clash of cultures or religions than it is one about a clash of values and emotional hard-wiring. There are no Taliban here, but the gap between Afghan and Westerner is just as pronounced, and just as deadly.
As good as On the Side of the Angels is, it is not the best part of Enduring Freedom. That distinction belongs to Ben Ockrent’s Honey, an affectionate look at the man who could have been the face of a free Afghanistan, Ahmad Shah Massoud. Massoud was an engineer who became a fiercely successful guerilla commander against the Soviet-backed government despite receiving indifferent support from the US funds being funneled through the Pakistani security services. When the last Communist President was overthrown, Massoud’s mentor, Burhanuddin Rabbani, succeeded him and Massoud became defense minister. A period of furious civil war followed, with Massoud’s forces eventually prevailing. Eventually, however, Kabul was overrun by the Pakistani-backed Taliban. Massoud led a resistance from the North, turning down repeated offers to join the Taliban government, until he was assassinated by Al Qaeda agents two days before the September 11, 2001 attacks on America.
Massoud’s shadow hangs over much of The Great Game. In Part I’s Campaign, the British brain trust note the high esteem in which Afghans hold Massoud: “He’s been lionized – a cult figure – someone to look up to – an Afghan hero….” In Part II’s Miniskirts of Kabul, a writer implores a deposed Communist leader to join forces with Massoud: “You’re the best politician. Massoud is the best commander. Both of you are charismatic men.” The deposed leader agrees with her assessment: “There are only two people capable of running this country. Massoud and me.” (He rejects her advice, though, with disastrous results.) The Soviet-fighting guerilla commander in Lee Blessing’s Wood for the Fire seems very much like a young Massoud – like Massoud, he suffers from the neglect of the Pakistani ISI, which funds his rival Gulbuddin Hekmatyar instead. (Blessing, however, calls his commander “Abdul”).
In Honey we meet Massoud in the flesh, and he is everything we anticipated, thanks to an astounding performance by Daniel Rabin. It is a hard thing to play a historical figure but profoundly more difficult to play a character as brilliant and charismatic as Massoud. Rabin hits all the grace notes, and is accordingly plausible and riveting in the role. In Steven Coll’s Pulitzer-winning book “Ghost Wars” he describes CIA officers who “saw (Massoud) as a Che Guevara figure, a great actor on history’s stage. Massoud was a poet, a military genius, a religious man, and a leader of enormous courage who defied death and accepted its inevitability, they thought. … In his house there were thousands of books: Persian poetry, histories of the Afghan war in multiple languages, biographies of other military and guerilla leaders. In their meetings Massoud wove sophisticated, measured references to Afghan history and global politics into his arguments. He was quiet, forceful, reserved, and full of dignity, but also light in spirit.” Rabin’s Massoud is every bit of that, and it is impossible to leave Honey without a heavy sense of loss. Vincent Ebrahim performs effectively as Massoud’s close friend, Masood Khalili, who provides narration as needed.
Honey ends with Massoud’s assassination, and then with those familiar, tragic images from New York, which then dissolve, improbably, into a sea of flowers. (Pamela Howard is the designer for Honey; Miriam Nabarro is responsible for what comes after).They are opium-producing poppies, and they provide the background for the next play, Abi Morgan’s The Night is Darkest Before the Dawn.
The effect is gorgeous. I only wish it had ushered in a better play. The Night is Darkest…is about Huma (Shereen Martineau), an Afghan woman who wishes to open a school for girls, funded by a charity which Alex (Daniel Betts) represents. The Taliban have been overthrown but their influence is still strong, as is evidenced by the burkah-clad Minoo (Cloudia Swann) who sits in the corner, making bread. Huma, accompanied by Alex, is trying to convince her late husband’s brother Omaid (Rabin) to permit his daughter Berukh (Sheena Bhattessa) to enroll in her school. It is heavy going. Omaid is terrified of enraging the Taliban, and in any event he needs Berukh to help with the crops at home, as the rest of his family has been killed in American bombing raids. Eventually Elmar, a local strongman, (Nabil Elouahabi, particularly effective in this role) arrives and opens Alex’s eyes to Huma’s secret history, and what life under the Taliban was like.
The Night is Darkest…moves at a glacial pace. At points I wondered whether we were going to see night turn into dawn in real time. There is a narrative thrust, but the secrets that are eventually revealed bring the play perilously close to melodrama. Moreover, it does not move us to understanding. The crimes of the Taliban are familiar to us, and yet another recitation – done in narrative form, rather than in the moment – does not constitute either high art or education.
The final play is Simon Stephens’ Canopy of Stars, in which a Sergeant (McKay) and a Private (Karl Davies) talk about the quotidian events of their lives as they await a promised firefight that evening. Then, in darkness, the firefight occurs, and then we are suddenly at home with the Sergeant and his wife (Swann). She doesn’t want him to go back to Afghanistan, but he, haunted by the Taliban’s depredations, is resolved to do so. The back-and-forth between the two is beautifully written and impressively performed. Regrettably, the dialogue between the Sergeant and the Private is done in the dialect of working-class Manchester, with accents so thick as to be impenetrable by an American audience. I could understand perhaps one out of every twelve words, and even after buying the script I was not much better off, so heavily did it rely on slang. When the private exclaims “chips and gravy” I could not guess whether this was some sort of slang approval or he was actually talking about food.
Enduring Freedom is leavened by two “Verbatims” (both edited by Richard Norton-Taylor), in which actors play various public figures, reciting public statements. This is a dicey sort of exercise, since public figures generally shape their pronouncements to be as undramatic as possible, and accordingly the characters appear wooden, even indifferent. Raad Rawi, playing the journalist Ahmed Rashid, is an exception: in both Verbatims he argues passionately for his conclusion that the United States must open a dialogue with the Taliban before they follow their self-imposed mandate to leave the country in July of 2011.
His argument throws the only real disappointment of The Great Game in high relief – its failure to humanize the Taliban. In play after play, the Taliban destroy art; burn out the eyes of little girls for trying to learn to read; draw and quarter human beings with trucks, for trying to teach them; desecrate dead bodies; feed men to carnivorous beasts. Indeed, even as Rashid speaks, a Taliban Commander (Rabin) vows never to negotiate with Americans or with his non-Taliban Afghan brothers. It would be fruitless to attempt negotiate with such people; they can only be destroyed, or they will prevail. If Rashid is talking about a more moderate variety of Taliban, I wish we had seen them somewhere in The Great Game.
But the perfect is the enemy of the good, or in this case, the outstanding. Tricycle Theatre Artistic Director Nicolas Kent has mounted a monumental examination of a fantastically complex problem, and in so doing has fulfilled the highest purpose of art: to foster understanding. It is a rare thing when great art is also public service, but that’s what The Great Game is.
The Great Game, Part III – 1996-2010, Enduring Freedom. Composed of:
By Ben Ockrent
Directed by Nicolas Kent
The Night is Darkest Before the Dawn
By Abi Morgan
Directed by Indhu Rubasingham
Edited by Richard Norton-Taylor
On the Side of the Angels
By Richard Bean
Directed by Indhu Rubasingham
Edited by Richard Norton-Taylor
Canopy of Stars
By Simon Stephens
Directed by Nicolas Kent
Produced by Tricycle Theatre at the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Harman Hall
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
THE GREAT GAME: AFGHANISTAN
DCTS review, Part 1
DCTS review, Part 2
DCTS review, Part 3