All day, in three parts starting at 11.30, 15.00 and 19.30. A dozen short plays by top-notch contemporary writers and a handful of interludes, with a cast of 14, looking at the last 200 years of Afghan history, and in particular the consequences of successive, more or less well-meaning foreign interventions. Partly a history lesson (plays-plus-programme notes give you a very thorough introduction, not least to the distressing tendency of history in Afghanistan to repeat itself), partly an intelligent attempt to help us understand the multiple perspectives of Americans and Pakistanis and Russians and Brits, of Afghan farmers and rulers, of the Taliban, of diplomats and NGO workers and (at the end, movingly) British soldiers and their families. One play would pick up and expand on ideas explored in a previous play, or show the consequences of what had been done in an earlier section of the day. Political theatre of the best sort, taking real issues, examining them clearly, occasionally didactically but usually with imaginative sympathy and offering new insights as a result.
I knew much of the history thanks to reading David Loyn's book, Butcher and Bolt. He was one of many experts the production team consulted, and was there all day. We had lunch together. But there was real delight in seeing how some of the writers had responded and fleshed out the historical events.
We had some quibbles. The earlier interludes worked well. The only elements to be written by an Afghan writer, Siba Shakib, the first featured an artist painting a mural devoted to Afghan history who falls foul of the Taliban. Towards the end of the second sequence he and they return and his work is whitewashed over. And she had also written a couple of monologues featuring women from Afghan history: Malalai, the Maid of Maiwand, who reputedly rallied the failing fighters in a 19th century battle against the British and saved the day; and Queen Gohar Shahd, who built the mosques and minarets of Herat praised by Robert Byron and promoted the education of women, though apparently they had to marry a Muslim scholar first.
But there were also "verbatims" written ("edited") by Richard Norton-Taylor of The Guardian in which named individuals spoke direct to the audience. They included an historian, diplomats, Hilary Clinton and Gen Sir David Richards, a former Nato commander in Afghanistan and now head of the army. (Earlier he had brought 200 soldiers and defence community types to an all-day showing of the production, confirming one's impression that Britain's senior military commanders these days are a pretty sophisticated bunch.) These verbatims didn't work so well: in some ways it seems to be more difficult to deliver real speech convincingly "to camera" than to play a role. Presumably they were there to help point up some of the contemporary issues and give some geo-political context, but the plays themselves combined with the programme did that very well.
The plays themselves were short, and the whole day unfolded a bit like a really thought-provoking strip cartoon. Not a lot of depth, perhaps, but plenty of punch and pace and wit.
So what stands out?
(Written three weeks later)
I've been carrying the programme about with me all this time meaning to write up my thoughts on the individual play(let)s. But at three weeks' distance writing this blog becomes less an exercise in capturing the experience lest I forget it as groping through the fog of forgetting for anything that has stuck.
The first one was definitely memorable. Bugles at the Gates of Jalalabad by Stephen Jeffreys (who wrote The Libertine). Four British buglers stand at the gates of the fort at Jalalabad, just after the sole survivor of the 16,000-strong column that had left Kabul weeks before, has struggled in. This was the first (disastrous) Western attempt at intervention in Afghanistan.) They sound the advance periodically through the night to attract any further stragglers. They reflect on their reasons for joining the army (ranging from blind patriotism to "a certain lack of choices") and on the folly of the first Afghan war. When an apparently peaceable Afghan turns up, speaking in what to them are riddles, they first parry with him verbally then kill him. All this intercut with extracts from the journal of Lady Sale, who was one of 90-odd Brits taken hostage in Kabul: she survived the experience. A very powerful opener.
There followed Durand's Line by Ron Hutchinson (Moonlight and Magnolias), an entertaining exchange between Sir Henry Durand, the Foreign Minister of British India in the 1880s and 90s and the man who drew the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and Abdur Rahman, the wily Amir of Afghanistan. Durand believes modern government is impossible without maps and borders; Abdur Rahman believes borders are meaningless lines on the map if they ignore the social, ethnic, tribal, religious, political realities and proves it by drawing a map of Britain and arbitrarily reassigning great chunks of England to Scotland and Wales. How very true.
Campaign by Amit Gupta was less successful: a special adviser in the Foreign Officer (accompanied by a sinister but almost silent American) quizzes an academic expert on Afghanistan about Amanullah Khan, the modernising king of Afghanistan in the 1920s, and his foreign minister and father-in-law Mahmud Tarzi; the academic, it is suggested (if I recall rightly) might consider starting a newspaper propounding a modern equivalent of Amanullah's pro-western views.
And in the next play, Now is the Time by Joy Wilkinson, we see Amanullah, Tarzi and Amanullah's wife escaping the coup that has overthrown him; their Rolls Royce gets stuck in the snow but the (British) driver goes off to send a telegram and returns to help them dig it out. The reply to the telegram reveals that Amanullah's foreign sponsors have deserted him, and that the modernising project has failed.
Part Two opened with a David Edgar play, Black Tulips, charting the increasingly disastrous Russian engagement in Afghanistan through a series of addresses by senior officers (and occasionally Afghans and their interpreters) to troops newly arrived in the theatre... but in reverse order. So we started in 1987, when the Russians were about to pull out and the whole business had become an evident disaster which the brass couldn't be bothered to hide; and ended in 1981, when the Soviets were full of (no doubt largely genuine) enthusiasm and a belief (just like the Brits, just like the Yanks...) that they were going to drag Afghanistan into a modern, progressive world.
Wood for the Fire by Lee Blessing was apparently a new addition to the repertoire (what did it replace in the original run, I wonder?) and pitched a CIA station chief in Islamabad, insisting on seeing and meeting the Mujaheedin whose weapons were being purchased with American money, against the wily general running Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence Agency. The general conclusion: the Pakistanis are a slippery bunch using Afghanistan as a way to line their own pockets and bolster their own position.
David Greig's Miniskirts of Kabul was a classic Greig fantasy in which a (female) writer imagines herself into a meeting with Afghanistan's last communist leader, Najibullah, holed up in the UN compound in Kabul, dreaming of a return to power while waiting for his enemies to take the city and kill him (which they did). It played post-modern games with the relationship of writer and character, and depicted Najibullah as both idealistic and brutal, which was probably right.
The Lion of Kabul by Colin Teevan was set in Taliban times. A western NGO worker is summoned to a meeting with a Taliban official (who of course refuses to look directly at her or address her except through her interpreter) next to the lion enclosure in Kabul Zoo. She is demanding satisfaction for some offence (I forget what) committed by a couple of prisoners; it slowly dawns on her that the "just" punishment deemed appropriate by the Taliban is to feed them to the surviving lion. A scary and convincing picture of fanatical extremism.
Part Three started wth Honey by Ben Ockrent. We are back with the American-funded militias, in this case Ahmad Shah Massoud and one of his long-time associates who obeys a summons to travel to Massoud's house in Northern Afghanistan. Massoud is another in that long line of local warlords and strongmen the outsiders back in the hopes that he can bring stability and a degree of progressive thinking to the mess. His associate, telling the story in flashback, certainly thinks he's the bees knees. At the end Massoud is killed by a suicide squad masquerading as a TV reporter and his cameraman; the associate survives thanks to his passport, which Massoud has thrust into his breast pocket and which catches a vital piece of shrapnel.
In The Night is Darkest Before the Dawn by Abi Morgan the representatives of a western NGO engage with the problem of Afghan reliance on the opium poppy as a cash crop and the education of women: a westernised women is trying to restart a school and persuade her brother to let his daughter (or her sister?) sign up; her husband was killed by the Taliban and there are suggestions that she betrayed him in some way. I remember a heavily-armed man and some farmers sitting around having a discussion, and an American who doesn't understand, but by this stage I think I was getting tired (what must the actors have been feeling?) and the memories are hazy.
Likewise for On the Side of the Angels, by Richard Bean (England People Very Nice), which traced the process by which a pair of Western NGO workers came to die in Kandahar, switching between the NGO office in Croydon and Afghanistan. I can remember no details of the plot -- only of the message, which seemed to be that meddling in things you don't fully understand can be fatal. (Was this about the role of women too? Or the opium crop?)
The last play was Canopy of Stars bySimon Stephens (Punk Rock, Pornography), which began as a two-hander involving a contemporary British army sergeant and private preparing to go out on patrol, escalated into a dettifying and confusing firefight, and ended with the sergeant back home in England, monosyllabic, a clear victim of post-traumatic stress disorder, being harangued by his wife (who wants her husband back and doesn't see why he, and she, should suffer on behalf of a bunch of ungrateful foreigners in some godforsaken, backward backwater). It brought us back to a similar place to the first play, the experience of the ordinary British soldier, and it was strangely moving.
(more follows on performances, production and overall message)