Strictly speaking, there are no running characters linking the twelve plays that make up The Great Game: Afghanistan, a three-part, seven-plus-hour cycle that seeks to chart 150 years of ill-starred Western intervention in the so-called “Graveyard of Empires.” What we cling to instead, as we leapfrog from decade to decade, playwright to playwright, are motifs: Maps of the unmappable; ever-boomeranging devil’s bargains for weapons, land, poppies, loyalty; cups of tea with sodden, impossible promises at the bottom. The Great Game comes from the U.K.’s politically minded Tricycle Theater. Most of its authors are British (with the exception of the American Lee Blessing), as are both of its directors, Nicolas Kent and Indhu Rubasingham, and the production has about it a distinctly weary postcolonial Anglitude that makes its general slant — somewhere between horrified bewilderment and doomed bemusement — fairly easy to predict, from play to play.
This is, for the most part, long-form, linear teaching theater, not maximalist drama. The Great Game makes no attempt to mirror the ineffable, mystic oblivion of its milieu. Kent and company haven’t gone to Afghanistan on a vision quest, even the cautiously self-limiting, artistically responsible kind Tony Kushner embarked on with Homebody/Kabul. In that pla — nearly a decade old now (hard to believe it’s been ten years since Western theater undertook a large-scale invasion of Afghanistan!) — a Taliban official informs a passel of Western interlopers: “In Kabul now there is no history. There is only God.” But The Great Game resists all transcendence and seems suspicious of lyricism. It’s a docudrama download of Wikileaksian proportions, and its dutiful reenactment style both rivets and frustrates — but far more of the former than the latter. The show’s at the end of a four-city American tour. Only four cities! The Great Game should stay on the road until the last NATO APC rolls out of Kabul.
Part One covers the first and second Anglo-Afghan wars, mind-blowing disasters both — this was, in the strictest sense, “The Great Game,” Britain’s trans-Asiatic chess match against the Russian Empire, an increasingly entropic fight to keep the Bear from Colonial India’s door. Part Two explores the Soviet invasion of the eighties and the gimcrack American ploy to arm the mujaheddin against the Red army. Part Three is our American Afghanistan, the you-break-you-buy apocalypse we’ve purchased for ourselves in the name of freedom and justice; look for Jemma Redgrave, Vanessa’s niece, doing a shockingly spot-on Hillary Clinton.
All three parts are garnished, between the entrée plays, with performed transcripts (a specialty of the Tricycle troupe, which pioneered so-called “tribunal plays” drawn from actual documents). This adds up to a century and a half of hubris, much of it well-intentioned, much of it not, but the lines are drawn early on. “The world’s been mapped, all of it, defined, parceled out, even the odd bits and ends snapped up. This is the biggest odd and end left,” says Sir Henry Mortimer Durand (Michael Cochrane) in Ron Hutchinson’s Durand’s Line, a foreboding account of the arbitrary 1893 division of Afghanistan and British India (the origin of today’s embattled, increasingly meaningless Af-Pak border). “Your country, I firmly believe, is in the wrong place but there’s nothing that can be done about that. What we can do is tidy it up a little; make sure it’s known where it begins and ends, a country should be a country, after all — not a question mark.” Of course, we know how this turns out. (Pointed historical ironies prove irresistible to nearly every playwright on call, and a high tolerance for nudge-nudging is recommended.) Afghanistan remains “in the wrong place,” as maps of its serrated terrain grow and shrink based entirely on the dreams and delusions of the empire trying to tame it. (Black Tulips, David Edgar’s demonically funny, utterly heartbreaking account of the Soviet war effort, plays the map game particularly well.)
Ultimately, The Great Game tells us, Afghanistan isn’t a map at all. It’s an alternate dimension, with rules that seem unlearnable by Western minds. We come to help others and ourselves, to root out the bad and replace it with the good, and yes, to spill blood, surgically, and in more-than-fair exchange for modernity, prosperity, education, rights. But as Jackie (Redgrave), a pragmatic aid worker in Richard Bean’s On the Side of Angels, points out: “Rights are individualistic concepts, and the one thing that Afghanistan doesn’t have and has never had is any individuals.”
If Western incursions have failed to bring individualism to Afghanistan, The Great Game hasn’t fared much better, truth be told. Deep, unique characters aren’t the focus here — indeed, some come perilously close to bathetic caricature — though the Tricycle’s super-heroic and indefatigable fourteen-member troupe of shape-shifters does a fairly brilliant job disguising that fact. But the sheer speed and sweep of the experience, coupled with the directors’ canny talent for implicating, even mock-endangering the audience, keep our ears pricked, even in the occasional doldrums of literalness. Is The Great Game a single, slo-mo catastrophe, the same disaster played out again and again, an enduring conundrum yet to be cracked, or the primordial fact of human doom metaphysically condensed into flesh, dust, and custom? Is Afghanistan, in fact, mortality itself, an enveloping, irresistible dream of death — the earth’s reply to “The World Is Too Much With Us”? But see, that’s poetry again, and The Great Game deals mostly in fact. Which doesn’t stop it from posing the questions. For seven mostly remarkable hours last weekend, I was tempted to take them on myself. I hope you’ll be just as foolish. I hope the same for every voting, dreaming individual in the Western world.
The Great Game is at NYU’s Skirball Center through December 19.