Review – The Great Game (part 1) – Tricycle theatre

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Last night J and I went to the Tricycle to see the first third of “The Great Game,” the series of plays on Afghanistan newly commissioned for this event. The plays are set up so that you can see all of them at once, as an all-day event, or split them up into three different evenings, in chronological sets. I’m not really one to sit in a chair watching anything for eight hours, but the promise of new theater (which I like to support) broken into bite-sized chunks (several short plays in each set, meaning the chances of seeing really good stuff was higher and the amount of time you needed to survive a bad one was lower) was irresistable.

The night I went was the earliest set, from about 1860 through the 1920s, with brief modern interludes to provide background. We opened with the Taliban arresting a sign painter, doubtlessly for a variety of crimes (the hugely informative program suggested that listening to music, painting a woman, and not wearing a beard were all likely reasons for his arrest). We then slipped into the best play of the evening: “Bugles at the Gates of Jalalabad,” a play about the tragedy of the 16000 British soldiers “and camp followers” (including wives and servants) who died while attempting to escape Kabul for Jalalabad.

The text, about four soldiers waiting for “the other survivors” (there was only one) was enhanced by text from the diary of Lady Sale (performed by Jemma Regrave), who’d been left behind as a hostage. The performances of the four men (Daniel Betts, Tom McKay, Rick Warden, and Hugh Skinner) nicely captured the madness of war, especially the way they turned on the Afghani (Nabil Elouahabi) who came their way. Imperialism, cultural idiocy, the futility of invasive wars, religious animosity – so much came out in this short time of the problems that basically have not managed to go away. But, more importantly, it captured the eerie feeling of the unbelievable, savage deaths of so many to an extent that it almost felt like a ghost story. It was the highlight of the evening for me.

Of the remaining plays, I felt they suffered from overacting and belaboring their point. Siba Shakib’s “Duologue,” abut the heroine Malalai, who rallied her people to fight against the British, was practically a propaganda piece, and Jemima Rooper didn’t seem to have the least bit of humanity in her portrayal of this person. It is possible that this was really a problem of the script, but hard for me to tell. “Durand’s Line,” about the borders set by Sir Mortimer Durand for the nation of Afghanistan, almost had a comic-book portrayal of Abdur Rahman (Paul Battacharjee), the Amir of Afghanistan from 1880-1901 – he was like Ming the Merciless. The play succeeded in expressing the political and social reality of that time, so I think was somewhat successful, but the acting needed work (again – though actually Michael Cochrane seemed letter-perfect as the pushy civil servant who could easily ignore he was dealing with a man who boiled people alive, and I had no complaints about either Danny Rahim or Rick Warden’s performances) and I felt the character of Abdur was also extremely thin.

After intermission, we return to two eminently forgettable playlets: “Campaign” (by Amit Gupta) which appeared to primarily be concerned with feeding the audience the history of early 20th century Afghanistan via the character of the professor (Paul Bhattacharjee), and “Now is the Time,” which depicted the end of the rule of the man who attempted to modernize Afghanistan in the period the professor had just been describing. “Campaign” seemed like it might have been attempting to insert a little humor with its trope of “the civil servant trying to get some free information from an intellectual,” but I didn’t find it very funny and since I’d just read the story of Amanullah’s failure to bring Attaturk-style reforms to Afghanistan in the program, I also found it boring. It was like one of those horrible moments in SF novels where the author decides they need to explain the details of faster-than-light space flight that they’ve made up for their universe. “Now is the Time” (by Joy Wilkinson) had a real “End of the Tsars” feeling to it, but instead of really focusing on the human drama and the interaction between the characters, it just kept layering on the historical detail as if that were the real purpose of the play. It’s a shame, really, because the question of whether or not Amanullah Khan shot his own father to become king of Afghanistan was really interesting and highly relevant to the question of whether or not he’d just betrayed his father in law (Mahmud Tarzi, played by Vincent Ebrahim) in order to save his own skin. We’re talking serious tension, all of which is eventually let out like air from a balloon as the three leads pile back into their car and head off to Russia with their driver. It really just was not good enough, and Jemima Rooper was also failing to hit it as Soroya Tarzi, daughter of Mahmud and wife of Amanullah. To top it off, I swear their accents all sounded fake.

Overall, though, with such a fast moving pace (six stories between 8 PM and 10:05) and low ticket price (£13), I considered this a good evening – not enough to make me want to sit through the full day showing off all plays in the cycle, but enough to want to come back for part 2 or part 3.

(This review is for a play seen on May 6th, 2008. The Great Game continues through June 16th at The Tricycle. Support new theater – go see this show!)

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