The Great Game: Afghanistan, Part Two

Culture Watch

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former entertainment writer and critic for the New York Daily News.

‘The Great Game’: Nothing but Trouble in Afghanistan’s Long History 

The Great Game: Afghanistan, the Tricycle Theater Company’s trilogy of plays about the history of Afghanistan since 1842, is finishing its four-city tour of the U.S. at the New York Public Theater. The plays began last weekend and run through December 19. Theatergoers can see each of the three separately or all three in a marathon on weekends.

Part Two, 1979 – 1996: Communism, the Mujahideen & the Taliban
New York University’s Skirball Center
566 LaGuardia Place
New York, NY

Part two of ‘The Great Game,’ the Public Theater’s trilogy of plays about Afghanistan, was billed as the story of the Soviet invasion and war in Afghanistan, that started in 1979 and lasted nine years before the Soviet army was driven out of the country and trudged north in a humiliating defeat. It wasn’t, though. The invasion opened the play, but the story soon plunged into a twenty year history of Afghanistan, post Soviet arrival. The play was fascinating, filled with sharp drama and highlighted by tense acting.

Part two, like part one, is not traditional drama. It is a series of vignettes strung together to tell an overall story. Here, though, presented in just an 18 year period, the vignettes tell a more compact and compelling tale than they did in part one.

Stern looking Soviet commanders strut across the stage as part two begins, looking back on the failure of their 110,000 man army (over 600,000 Soviets fought there over nine years, suffering high casualties) and air force to defeat the Afghans and their mujahideen freedom fighters, heavily supplied by the U.S. through intermediaries in neighboring Pakistan.

Afghanistan had been through several governments in the twentieth century and in 1979 had a communist President who asked for Soviet military help. The Soviet commanders in the play stressed the invitation and repeated, over and over, that they actually ‘won’ the war, which they did not. Their claims were mocked in delightful language by their female Afghan interpreter.

The Soviets were never able to get the upper hand over the mujahideen. The Afghans had better weapons, and plenty of them. They shot down Soviet helicopters with U.S. stinger missiles. Afghan informers assisted the mujahideen and they received considerable help from Pakistan. The Soviets were unable to dislodge the Afghans from their mountain strongholds and tens of thousands of Afghans children fought alongside their fathers and uncles. The Soviets lost somewhere between 14,000 and 75,000 men, the Afghans nearly one million.

A Soviet officer sets the stage for the story nicely in a short but information filled talk describing the agricultural and mountainous nature of the country and its stormy political history, going back to the middle of the eighteenth century. His talk reminds the audience, as did part one, just how complex the history of the country has been. The audience learned a lot. The story of the invasion takes up the first half of the play.

The drama then branches out to cover more Afghanistan history, anchored by angry talks between an American CIA station chief, Pakistani intelligence heads and Afghan commanders in 1996. It shows U.S. involvement in the country and outlines, in simple fashion, how the Americans’ inability to conquer the Taliban today reflects the problems the Soviet had twenty years ago and the British had in the nineteenth century. It shows, too, how easily Americans were duped by their “friends” in Pakistan.

The action changes later that year at an imagined interview between an aggressive but sympathetic writer, played well by Jemma Redgrave, and Mohammad Najibullah, the former President of the country, under house arrest for four years at a U.N. compound in Kabul. During those four years he tried to put together coalition governments and failed; a civil war tore apart the country. She tries to get him to say what he would have done differently as the nation’s leader and why he did not flee the civil strife when he could. The President is played by Daniel Rabin, who gives a tour de force performance as the crafty, patriotic but very naïve Najibullah, ‘The Ox,’ as he was known. He is magnificent as he pirouettes around the compound, tells his story, describes the rise of the Taliban and, at the height of the stinging scene, suddenly dances with the writer as she plays a Spice Girls video on television. What happens to the President at the end of the scene is harrowing theater.

The play concluded with what began as a routine 1998 meeting at a Kabul zoo between a Taliban mullah and a female U.N. official, who wants to find out what happened to two missing U.N. workers. The scene, well written by Colin Teevan, unfolds slowly and builds in drama moment by moment as the self-confident Mullah treats the woman in a degrading manner, even refusing to talk to her and directing all of his comments to her Afghan colleague. Then, without notice, the whereabouts of the U.N. workers are disclosed and, in a few moments, the scene comes to a savage, startling conclusion that has theatergoers coming out of their seats, hands trembling and eyes wide.

Part two was more exhilarating than part one and was highlighted by several well written and directed vignettes, especially the interview with the President and the final incident at the zoo. In part two, as in part one, the special effects were chilling, particularly the aerial bombing of Kabul as opposition forces moved into the center of the city. You really thought the theater was under attack.

The direction of the play by Nicolas Kent and Indhu Rubasingham was even better here than in part one. The audience seems more entranced by part two, probably because we all lived through the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (remember the refusal of the U.S. to participate in the 1980 Olympics because of  it?). Part two also described the emergence and rise to power of the Taliban, who have earned so much attention lately in the U.S. war in that country. Part two is also designed as a reminder to the Americans, as was part one – you can’t win; get out.

Here, in Part Two, the four playlets, covering just eighteen years, were stitched together with far more cohesion than they were in part one.  There was also a helpful accompanying brochure to explain the real history of events that took place in the play, as there was for the other two plays. Part two was a good lead in to the final play, that was about U.S. involvement in the country from 2001, spurred by the hunt for Osama Bin Laden and his terrorists (post September 11) through today. Anyone who goes to the trilogy gets a comprehensive lesson in Afghan history and politics and the 160 year bungling of foreign powers. The plays are a real treat for those who love history and top notch theater for everyone.

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‘The Great Game: Afghanistan’ is produced by the Public Theater, Oscar Eustis, artistic director, England’s Tricycle Theater and New York University’s Skirball Center. Sets were by Pamela Howard, lighting by David Taylor, sound by Tom Lishman.

‘The Great Game was written by Richard Bean, Lee Blessing, David Edgar, David Greig, Amit Gupta, Ron Hutchinson, Stephen Jeffreys, Abi Morgan, Ben Ockrent, Simon Stephens, Colin Teevan and Joy Wilkinson. The plays run through December 19; they can be seen as a marathon on weekends.

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