MIKE PESCA, host:
A tiny London theater company has taken on an enormous project it's recounting 150 years of Western involvement in Afghanistan in an all-day marathon of 12 one-act plays. "The Great Game: Afghanistan" was a hit in the U.K. and has opened a U.S. tour this week in Washington, D.C.
Jeff Lunden reports.
JEFF LUNDEN: The Tricycle Theatre, a 200-seat stage in Northwestern London has made a name for itself as an incubator for political plays. Three years ago, longtime artistic director Nicholas Kent came up with the idea for an ambitious theatrical venture.
Mr. NICHOLAS KENT (Artistic Director, Tricycle Theatre): I felt there were no artistic responses at all to what had gone on in Afghanistan. There was no way for the public debate to be raised. There'd been Khaled Hosseini's book, "The Kite Runner," and that was more or less it.
LUNDEN: So Kent got in touch with 12 authors , among them, David Edgar, who adapted Nicholas Nickleby for the Royal Shakespeare Company, and asked each to write a play about a different period of Western engagement in Afghanistan beginning with the first Anglo-Afghan War in 1842 to the present. The result, "The Great Game: Afghanistan," can be seen over three evenings or in a one-day marathon that starts at 11:30 in the morning and ends at 10:30 at night.
Mr. KENT: The playwrights have all brought their own creativity and sensibility to these plays. They're all over the map stylistically, and that's the joy of them. I mean, if you happen not to like one play, it's like a bus; there'll be another one along in thirty minutes and you'll enjoy that one.
LUNDEN: One play, "Durand's Line," is set in 1893 when the British imposed borders on Afghanistan and colonial India.
(Soundbite of play, "Durand's Line")
Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): There you are, Sir Mortimer. There is your map. Take good care of it. The lines on it may be imaginary, but the problems they cause only too real. You'll be fighting because of them for many years.
LUNDEN: International Herald Tribune theater critic Matt Wolf saw "The Great Game" in London and had a mixed reaction.
Mr. MATT WOLF (Theater Critic, International Herald): Some parts of it are better than others. There are some parts that feel like dramatized history lessons or that get sort of thesis bound or in thrall to dogma. But I think in the large scheme of things, those cavils fall away because so much of it is so exciting.
LUNDEN: A company of 14 actors perform dozens of roles in the marathon. On the first day of rehearsal, Nicholas Kent gave them all a 200-page handout on the history of Afghanistan.
Shareen Martineau plays parts that range from a U.N. worker to Afghan Queen Soroya who was forced into exile in 1929. Martineau says she learned that the history of women in Afghanistan wasn't always about oppression.
Ms. SHAREEN MARTINEAU (Actress): King Amanullah and Soroya, they were striving for a much more liberal country. When the Soviets were there, you know, women didn't wear burkas, they were educated. They did work.
LUNDEN: However, in one of the plays, Martineau's role is a teacher whose husband was killed by the Taliban. In this excerpt, her character is trying to convince a man to send his daughter to school.
(Soundbite of play)
Ms. MARTINEAU: I have the forms that Ara used to register, but it is important if you want her to...
Unidentified Man #2: It was Ara who signed them. Ara wanted her to go to school.
Ms. MARTINEAU: Yes.
Unidentified Man #2: Because you and Faring talked to her.
Ms. MARTINEAU: It was of her own free will, Ahmed.
Unidentified Man #2: Was it? She must go to school, Ara said. I saw other men beat their wives, but she is strong.
LUNDEN: Over the course of the marathon, the plays touch on many parts of Afghan history the three wars with England, the Soviet occupation and the rise of the Taliban among them.
Some aspects are only briefly touched on, like the drug trade or the period from the 1930s through the 1970s when Afghanistan was a fairly stable and secular state, says director Nicholas Kent.
Mr. KENT: Even in seven and a half hours, you can't do the entire history of a country for 150 years.
LUNDEN: And while Kent says each evening stands on its own, he encourages audiences to come to the all-day marathons.
Mr. KENT: Because you immerse yourself in the culture of Afghanistan and the politics and the humor, and all sorts of debate is sparked by that day.
LUNDEN: The debate starts with the very first play, "Bugles at the Gates of Jalalabad," where British soldiers in 1842 argue over the merits of being in Afghanistan after 16,000 British subjects were massacred. Just as now, there are no easy answers.
(Soundbite of play, "Bugles at the Gates of Jalalabad")
Unidentified Man #3: It is our job to fight cheap wars so that our people back home can live expensive lives. There was a mistake. It has been an expensive war.
LUNDEN: And current British soldiers have been invited to enter the debate too. At one marathon day in London, the audience consisted entirely of military personnel. Sarah Frankland of the British Council, which is sponsoring the American tour, says General Sir David Richards, head of the U.K.'s defense forces, commissioned this command performance.
Ms. SARAH FRANKLAND (U.S. Arts Manager, British Council): And he stood up there and said, if I'd seen this before I went into Afghanistan, I'd have thought about it differently.
LUNDEN: Actor Tom McKay, who plays a variety of soldiers in "The Great Game," says general audiences will not only learn a lot but feel a lot too.
Mr. TOM MCKAY (Actor): I think people shouldn't be put off by having some sense that it's a history lesson and that it's going to be very didactic. It's really not. It's first and foremost 12 brilliant character-driven stories, where, by proxy, you get the spectrum of political and historical opinion. But first and foremost, they're good yarns. And they're not overwhelming, they're not, certainly, for the intellectual elite, by any means, they're for everybody.
LUNDEN: "The Great Game: Afghanistan" is currently playing at the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, D.C. before moving to the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, Berkeley Rep and the Public Theater in New York.
For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden.
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