Durand's Line in Part 1 of Great Game

The New York Times ran a front-page story Saturday that said Iranian officials had been slipping money secretly to Afghan President Hamid Karzai. The Iranians wanted to try and counter the influence of the west – and make sure they had a foothold when the Americans depart.

This comes as no surprise to those who attended Berkeley Rep’s all-day Friday marathon of Great Game: Afghanistan, a three play production of the history of Afghanistan. For almost 200 years, foreign countries have sought to influence and dominate the land-locked country of central Asia, usually not very successfully. Notions of unity, democracy, and equality sound good to western ears, but mean something very different to a country ruled by tribal affiliations, ancient customs, and a reluctance to come together under one leader.

When the US sent in its own troops after 9/11, in an attempt to throw off the rule of the Taliban and rout out Osama Bin Laden, Nicolas Kent, the artistic director of the Tricycle Theater in London, decided to ask more than two dozen of Britain’s leading playwrights to write half hour plays about the country’s tortured history. Kent then wove those vignettes into three distinct parts that viewers could either see one at a time or at an all-day marathon.

Kudos to Tony Taccone and Berkeley Rep for bringing Great Game: Afghanistan to the Bay Area for a two-week run. It’s a perfect play for this city’s (and region’s) informed residents, many of whom are already familiar with the long history of imperialist intervention in Afghanistan. First it was the British, then the Soviets, and now its appears to be the United States’ turn to be bogged down in a quagmire. When the US eventually leaves, Iran seems to have declared its willingness to make a mess of things.

Jemma Redgrave in Bugles at the Gates of Jalalabad

Going to see all three plays will definitely provide theatergoers with a deeper understanding of a 170-year swath of Afghanistan’s history. They will see some fine acting as well. Many members of the Tricycle’s London company are simply outstanding, including Jemma Redgrave, (of the famous acting family), Vincent Ebrahim, Michael Cochrane, Daniel Rabin, Raad Rawi, and Daniel Betts. Shucks, the actors are all so good that the rest deserve a mention as well: Sheena Bhattessa, Karl Davies, Nabil Elouahabi, Shereen Martineau, Tom McKay, Danny Rahim, and Cloudia Swann.

It’s just some of the plays that are the problem.

The playwrights were given instructions to write a theater piece that would convey a particular moment in Afghanistan’s history. These moments included a horrific battle in 1842 in which 16,000 British soldiers and sympathizers were killed, the drawing of the eastern border of the country in 1893, the 1929 flight and exile of an Afghani king who tried to modernize his country too fast, the tensions with Pakistan and India, the rise of communism and the occupation by the Soviets, their downfall, the role of the CIA and the Cold War, the Northern Alliance’s battle against the Taliban, NATO’s present involvement, and much more.

While all of the short scripts are intelligent, some end up feeling more like a history lesson, one delivered by lecture, rather than theater. I particularly felt this in “Bugles at the Gate of Jalalabad” (except for the part played by Redgrave) by Stephen Jeffreys and David Edgar’s “Black Tulips.” It’s not that these vignettes weren’t interesting or worthwhile; they just were not successful as theater.

Fortunately, many of the plays were powerful and had me sitting on the edge of my seat. I particularly liked “Durand’s Line,” by Ron Hutchison and “Campaign,” by Amit Gupta in the first cycle, “Miniskirts of Kabul,” by David Greig and “The Lion of Kabul,” by Colin Teevan in the second cycle,  and “The Night is Darkest Before Dawn,” by Abi Morgan in the third cycle.

Perhaps “liking” any particular play is beside the point. The three-part presentation is best viewed as a whole. Only by seeing the sweep of the history of this troubled country can one truly appreciate how difficult life has been for its people.

But not everyone has the time to sit at Berkeley Rep’s Roda Theater from 11:30 am to 10:37 pm. If you can’t attend a marathon, I would recommend Part Two, 1979-1996: Communism, the Mujahideen & the Taliban, and Part Three, 1996-2010: Enduring Freedom, over Part One, 1842-1930, Invasions & Independence.

The staffs of Berkeley Rep and the Triangle Theater have also put together an excellent program for the plays. It lays out Afghanistan’s history in detail, includes a timeline, maps and has interesting side articles, like one on the religious laws of the Taliban.

The Great Game: Afghanistan: Directed by Nicolas Kent and Indhu Rubasingham. Through Nov. 7. Berkeley Repertory’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. (510) 647-2949. Berkeley Rep.

Berkeley Rep is hosting a Page to Stage discussion about Great Game tonight, Monday Oct. 25 at 7 pm. Director Indhu Rubasingham will be interviewed in the Roda Theatre by Dr. Mohammad Qayoumi, a native of Afghanistan and the president of California State University, East Bay.

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Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman...