Running nearly seven and a half hours, Tricycle Theatre’s The Great Game: Afghanistan, presented by the Public Theater at the NYU Skirball Center, offers a fascinating series of snapshots of events — both public and private — in the country’s history over the course of nearly 170 years. And while the writing for the epic works proves uneven, there is a sweep to the event — which Nicholas Kent and Indhu Rubasingham have directed jointly with impressive economy — that proves to be unquestionably compelling. In part, the credit belongs to the superlative work of a company that switches between roles with the skill of human chameleons.
The piece is comprised of 12 original plays and three verbatim documentary sequences that are all grouped into three sections, covering 1842-1930, 1979-1996, and 1996-2010 (which are presented as single evenings or in succession on a marathon performance on weekends). In addition, Great Game includes one script by Siba Shakib that’s split across two sections of the production: it opens the show, literally with a bang, as members of the Taliban stop a man from painting a public mural depicting key figures from Afghanistan’s past. This man’s art dominates the action until late in the third part, and is cleverly lit at various points by David L. Taylor to help theatergoers make connections between images in it and those being portrayed onstage.
The level of extraordinary performances theatergoers can expect from the show is set early on by Jemma Redgrave as she plays a British general’s wife, who has managed to survive the Afghans’ horrific slaughter of English forces in 1842. Redgrave delivers her lines with quiet intensity and subdued regality as she describes the events, a narrative that playwright Stephen Jeffreys intercuts with scenes at a British outpost in Jalalabad to riveting effect.
Later, Redgrave proves to be remarkably forceful playing Hilary Clinton in one of the sequences that’s derived from this historical record. Perhaps her finest work comes in David Greig’s Miniskirts of Kabul, in which a writer imagines a conversation with one-time Afghan president Najibullah (Daniel Rabin). Greig’s surreal script is the most fanciful in Great Game, and Redgrave deftly navigates its loopy reality.
Her turn is matched by that of Rabin, who also delivers a series of grandly distinct performances. In this piece, he preens with unmitigated ego and cuts an elegant matinee idol-like figure, even as the former president endures house arrest at the U.N. compound in Kabul. This character couldn’t be more different than the one he plays in Abi Morgan’s exploration of how the Taliban’s crackdown on education (of women in particular). Here, Rabin shines as a coarse and surprisingly vulnerable man, who’s attempting to make sense of the violence that has befallen his family.
Rabin’s versatility is further evidenced by his shrewd turn as King Amanullah Khan as he attempts to flee the country in 1929 following a coup. And the actor’s work as overly optimistic defense minister, in Ben Ockrent’s Honey, which looks at Clinton-era efforts to diffuse the power of the Taliban, is beautifully calibrated.
In this latter piece, Michael Cochrane surprises with his portrayal of a good-ole-boy American who’s trying to negotiate the return of weapons that America had provided to the Taliban during Afghanistan’s war with Russia. Cochrane’s turn startles primarily because of his felicity at playing the upper echelons of British society at the top of the show, most notably in Ron Hutchinson’s Durand’s Line, which puts an almost George S. Kaufman-like spin on the negotiations that went in to defining Afghanistan’s borders in 1893. In this work, Cochrane, playing a British foreign minister, along with Raad Rawi as the country’s Amir, gets some of the evenings biggest laughs.
Comedy can also be found in David Edgar’s look at how the Soviets prepared their forces for their time in Afghanistan. In this intriguingly constructed piece, Rick Warden proves devastatingly funny as an ensign who’s briefing the men on the dangers of landmines. He also gives a remarkably committed performance as a CIA chief trying to establish contact with the Taliban in the 1980s in an underwhelming, but promising, new play from Lee Blessing.
Other standouts in the ensemble are Shereen Martineau, who shines as a nineteenth century St. Joan-like figure in the production’s first section and later traverses Colin Teevan’s overly melodramatic The Lion of Kabul with aplomb, Tom McKay, who brings a chilling effeteness to a NATO inspector’s verbatim monologue and a heartiness to a contemporary British soldier in the work’s final piece; and Vincent Ebrahim, who plays an Afghan ambassador who is key in several of the pieces and makes for a much-needed touchstone in this ambitious theatrical event.