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The (Not So) Great Game

October 25, 2010

1011-gg-thumb-07.jpgBerkeley Repertory Theatre's presentation of The Great Game: Afghanistan, a cycle of plays about the war in Afghanistan and its historical and political roots written by 12 playwrights and commissioned by the UK's Tricycle Theatre, is an ambitious undertaking to say the least. Directed by Nicholas Kent and Indhu Rubasingham, the plays are organized into three parts and can be viewed on separate evenings, or, as was the case on Friday when I attended, a full-on, all-day marathon with breaks for lunch and dinner.

The cycle is compelling enough to hold our attention: Most of the performances are well-observed and some of the writing is dramatically compelling. I particularly enjoyed "Miniskirts of Kabul" a play by David Greig, for its playful creation of an imaginary meeting between an English female writer (played by Jemma Redgrave) and Mohammed Najibullah, the fourth and last president of the Soviet-backed Democratic Republic of Afghanistan. Unlike many of the others in the cycle, this drama attempted to go beyond teaching a history lesson to theatre audiences. I also enjoyed the ways in which the separate mini-dramas (created by such well-respectedplaywrights as David Edgar, Lee Blessing and Colin Teevan) occasionally reflected upon each other, thus bringing certain themes and ideas to the fore. For example, I was very much taken with how some of the plays explored the notion of cartography -- whether a map merely describes the world or is an attempt to create it in some respect, ie by delineating borders between nations. Another interesting theme comes in the form of a recurring question that pops up in several of the playlets: "Why are you here?". This is perhaps the binding motif of the plays. I liked the way in which some of the plays balanced asking this question in the spiritual/metaphorical sense of the expression with thinking about the different methods people in Afghanistan, both native and foreign, use to rationalize their actions in the country.

Yet despite the few interesting ideas that floated to the surface of this sprawling theatrical journey to a forbidding and socio-politically complex yet culturally rich land, I didn't get a whole lot out of The Great Game in the end. The plays touch on too many cliches regarding modern war zones and trade in conventional ideas about history, eg that it tends to repeat itself, without going beyond the surface. A friend of mine, who attended the cycle on the same day that I did, pretty much summarized his feelings in an email to me the next day. As his thoughts are so very close to my own, I asked him if I could share them on my blog and he kindly agreed:

"Ultimately, it made me feel not at all mad but sad and disappointed that so much time, effort and money would go into something that really doesn't have much impact at all that I can tell and is rather underwhelming. With such an important subject, it is a particular shame. That said, I do still feel it's a bit much for us to expect any artist, even David Edgar, to come up with anything profound to say about the situation or history of Afghanistan. It is a cliche now, that's a part of the problem. What's new to be said? Stay? Go? Let them draw their own borders? Draw borders for them? Poetic, wise locals? Barbaric locals? Blustery Brits and dumb Americans? Well-intentioned Brits and Americans? It's all true and cliche and old news."

My friend also shares my view that if Tricycle had created one long, focused play that went deep into the heart of the subject rather than a cycle of unrelated and diffuse short dramas, the impact would have been greater. "We could have gotten to know some characters and gone through something with them," he wrote in his email.

But we're both glad to have spent the day at Berkeley Rep nonetheless. It was an adventure and I take my hat off to the company for bringing this theatrical behemoth to the Bay Area.

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