Rules of engagement: Can you pack the bloody history of Afghanistan into a dozen half-hour plays?

The IoS foreign editor, a veteran of Helmand, goes on his next tough assignment: rehearsals at the Tricycle Theatre
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

But whatever its merits, the Churchill play was confirmation that political theatre, often as up to date as the headlines on the evening news, is making inroads in London. The uproar caused by Richard Bean's England People Very Nice at the National – is it an uproarious satire on immigration, or simply racist? – is still reverberating. And at the same venue, David Hare has only just finished dismantling New Labour every night in Gethsemane. But the veteran in this genre is Nicolas Kent, artistic director of the Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn, north London, who is almost journalistic in his desire to pursue contemporary issues – so much so that his path and mine have crossed more than once.

When I covered Lord Hutton's inquiry into the death of the weapons scientist David Kelly, and the alleged "sexing up" of the intelligence dossier that led us into war in Iraq, Kent was there every day too, and I assumed he was working for another newspaper. A few months later, I saw his distillation of the key testimony at that inquiry, edited down from thousands of pages of transcript. It was the same with the Bloody Sunday inquiry in Northern Ireland: what journalists like me sought to convey in print, the Tricycle endeavoured to put on stage.

The Tricycle has been presenting this cool, Brechtian style of work, which Kent has dubbed "tribunal" or "verbatim" theatre, since 1994, when the Scott inquiry into arms sales to Iraq was recreated. The most celebrated example, The Colour of Justice, consisting of excerpts from the Stephen Lawrence inquiry, also played in the West End and at the National Theatre, toured and was shown on BBC2. But the Tricycle does not get all its scripts from the official Stationery Office.

Kent was commissioning short, pungent political pieces in the manner of Seven Jewish Children as long ago as 2006, when he staged a series of plays about the Darfur crisis. The longest lasted 20 minutes and the briefest only five. "This is a bit more free than verbatim theatre," he says. Now he has turned his attention to Afghanistan, and once again our courses have intersected. As I watched him rehearsing Black Tulips, a 30-minute play by David Edgar which imagines a briefing given to the Soviet troops who invaded the country in December 1979, I remembered being on the foreign news desk of the Financial Times the day it happened, trying to make sense of the scrappy reports coming in on the teleprinter.

Black Tulips is one of 12 half-hour plays the Tricycle has commissioned under the overall title The Great Game: Afghanistan, exploring the history of Great Power involvement there since 1842, when the first British Army to invade this beautiful, violent country was wiped out almost to a man. That was the first attempt to modernise Afghanistan by force, and there have been several more since. Arguably, we are in the midst of the latest such project: in his play Edgar, by holding back mention of the Soviet Union, emphasises that the Nato forces now in the country could have received much the same assurances about being there to help the Afghan people. "It also makes the point that soldiers have more in common with each other than with their governments," the playwright told me later.

Afghanistan produced its own reformist zealots, too. Back in the 1920s, King Amanullah sought to emulate Ataturk's modernisation programme in Turkey, but merely succeeded in stirring up a tribal revolt that forced him to abdicate. One of the 12 plays is set in Amanullah's Rolls-Royce as he flees Kabul. In another, the last Communist president, Najibullah, is being interviewed in the United Nations compound in the Afghan capital, where he took refuge after unsuccessfully trying to flee the country.

I was in Afghanistan in 1992 when Najibullah fell from power, and might have secured the last interview with him in real life if I had not been out of Kabul at the wrong moment. But I did meet Ahmad Shah Massoud, the legendary guerrilla leader who seized the city from the Communists, and found myself briefing Vincent Ebrahim, the actor who will play him at the Tricycle, on how the "Lion of Panjshir" looked and talked.

Massoud famously warned the European Parliament in 2001 that Osama bin Laden and his network were preparing to attack the West, and was killed by an al-Qa'ida suicide bomber on 9 September that year. Some believe his death was the signal to the hijackers who went into action in New York and Washington two days later, an atrocity that brought the latest invasion of Afghanistan. The Taliban regime and its al-Qa'ida allies were ousted from Kabul within weeks of 9/11, yet more than seven years later we are sending more troops into the country to fight an insurgency that seems to be growing in strength. Why? It was a question that aroused Kent's journalistic and theatrical instincts.

"I heard people beginning to ask how long we are going to be there, and what the purpose of the mission was," he said during a break in rehearsals. "Experts were drawing parallels between events now and in the 19th century, and I wanted to explain how we got here." The plays are divided into three groups of four, designed to be seen on consecutive evenings or all in one day at weekends. Part one covers the period from 1842 to Amanullah's fall. Part two starts with the Soviet invasion and ends with the Taliban about to take power. The final four plays begin at almost the same moment and take us up to the present day, with two British soldiers in Helmand province. Authors include Bean, of England People Very Nice notoriety, Stephen Jeffreys (The Libertine) and Ron Hutchinson (Rat in the Skull).

If that was not enough of a teach-in on Afghanistan, the Tricycle is holding what Kent believes is the largest festival of Afghan culture ever seen in Britain alongside the plays, with 19 films – both features and documentaries – exhibitions, play readings, talks and debates. The theatre, which emphasises community involvement, conducts workshops for the children of refugees in its area, and reckons about a third are of Afghan origin.

As part of the extensive research he always undertakes, Kent went to Afghanistan last October. He admits that he left here "a pacifist, thinking we shouldn't be there", only to return convinced that we have no choice. "All the Afghans I met said that if we were not there, we would feel the consequences on our streets. All our heroin comes from Afghanistan, and Sangatte, outside Calais, is overflowing with Afghans trying to get here. In Kabul they say these problems would get worse if we left."

It might be argued that support for the British and Western presence is considerably less enthusiastic outside Kabul. But if the Great Game series can convince the British public that the mission in Afghanistan is worthwhile and should continue, as the Tricycle's artistic director now believes, it will achieve something that seems to be beyond the Government. On the other hand, since the Ministry of Defence, in particular, appears to believe that the less said about Afghanistan the better, it might be unwise to count on any block-bookings from Whitehall.

'The Great Game' is at the Tricycle Theatre (www.tricycle.co.uk) from 17 April to 14 June

Comments