Arts Desk

The Great Game: Afghanistan, Reviewed

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There’s a lot going on at Sidney Harman Hall, where the London-based Tricycle Theatre has brought its sprawling chronicle The Great Game: Afghanistan to the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s stage. A cyclical story of invasion and resistance covering nearly two centuries, and a joint effort involving no fewer than 12 writers, the massive undertaking looks at three major conflicts—one each from the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries—and their effects on both the Afghan peoples and those who would exploit, manipulate, and otherwise master them.

And the effect? Uneven—but that was probably inevitable. Policy junkies will thrill to the stretches (brief, and mercifully so, by some lights) in which Jemma Redgrave impersonates Hillary Clinton or Raad Rawi speaks in the voice of Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid, delivering verbatim renditions of one briefing or another. (Gen. Stanley McChrystal, intriguingly, is another character, offering more measured opinions on U.S. policy in contemporary Afghanistan than the ones that got him fired earlier this year.)

Fans of more theatrical forms will respond more urgently to plays like David Greig’s taut “Miniskirts of Kabul,” in which a journalist (Redgrave again) imagines an interview with beleaguered President Mohammad Najibullah (Daniel Rabin) circa 1996, as Taliban forces close in around his compound; it’s vivid, funny, and horrifying by turns. Colin Teevan’s “The Lion of Kabul,” by contrast, is simply and profoundly horrifying, with its tale of a U.N. aid coordinator trying to free her captured employees and the Taliban mullah who eventually tells her—sneeringly, and speaking only through her male subordinate—of their fate.

Some sequences tend toward the overtly explanatory or the drily historical, and in fact the cycle’s opener—Stephen Jeffreys’ “Bugles at the Gates of Jalalabad”—is in some ways a faithful harbinger of the whole: A promising beginning, with handsomely turned-out British sentries voicing a haunting antiphonal account of a campaign that’s cost the empire 16,000 lives, echoes the epic style of the great plays of the Greeks—not least that oldest extant drama, The Persians, with its own mesmerizing, agonizing account of an hubristic superpower’s battlefield humiliation. Then the playlet turns programmatic and a touch didactic—a capsule, in its way, of the ups and downs to come, a gambit that’s sometimes wonderful and sometimes merely worthy and well-meant.

What do our other critics think of the plays? Allow them to tell you!

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