Theatre: The magic of `might' and `do'

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The Independent Culture
THE STAGE seems to sit in a vacuum. In the middle of the featureless blackness an oblong of Oriental carpet slants towards the audience, carrying a "let-me-tell-you-a-story" chair, a table, and a paper bag. Whoever comes to act on this stage will appear to be cut off from the world, floating in a capsule of cosy isolation.

A paradoxical setting, then, for a play that is about our floundering attempts to connect with other people and cultures, and the kaleidoscopic and contradictory images confounding our attempts not only to explore such connections, but also to explore ourselves. Home Body/ Kabul is the first extended monologue Tony Kushner has written in a body of work that has famously blasted contemporary American drama from the obsessively personal to the inescapably political.

The play touches on topics close to Kushner's heart, following the tangential thought processes of a woman who is fascinated by Afghanistan, and her encounter with an Afghan man whose severed fingers provide an agonised testimony to fundamentalism's cruelty. Her narrative constantly shifts and changes direction, throwing its random spotlight on to episodes in Afghan history, on to elliptic observations about her own life, and on to the audience. The force of its beam suddenly exposes uncomfortable questions in our lives, showing up the liberal conscience in all its flawed dignity, and refusing to abnegate the complexity of political responsibility by giving any answers. "I have a friend," she confides, "who says... `Might do.' `I'm off to the cinema; care to come?' `Might do.' `I am leaving my husband and children, how about leaving yours?' `Might do.'" The audience smiles at this cosy satire, and then - wham - the finger is pointing at us. "We all romp about, I think, observing, pitying, grieving, wondering, but with rare exceptions we mostly remain suspended in the Rhetorical Colloidal For Ever that agglutinates between Might and Do."

The two words become unanswerable accusations about our political attitudes. Ironically, we realise, inaction is the response we are used to giving. Kushner has worked with the actress Kiki Markham before, and wrote the monologue specially for her. Apart from the occasional fleeting memory lapse, she shows an astonishing command over a role revelling in linguistic complexity and the extended aside. The playwright makes her swing with seeming serendipity through words with similar sounds, as if led by some blind force to explore ironies latent within the language. "Contempt for those who merely contemplate", she says of those who cannot escape from "might" to "do". "We affect each other, one might even say afflict each other," she reveals, describing the relationship between her family members. Kushner has dressed his polemic up as one woman's fantasy, and the atmosphere is ultimately one of enchantment and untasted magic. The unknown glitters like an Eastern toy, teasing and elusive. Touching without understanding corrupts, she explains at one point. It is sobering to realise that if this is true, we are doomed to corrupt almost everything we explore.