Tom Sutcliffe: Hope over experience in theatre of war

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The Independent Online

Addressing the annual dinner of the Royal Asiatic Society in 1908 Lord Curzon predicted that if the society still existed in "50 or a 100 years, Afghanistan will be as vital and as important a question as it is now". Well, the society does still exist and if Lord Curzon did too I don't think he'd exactly be feeling embarrassed by his prediction. Even he, though, might be surprised by how precisely his 100-year audit hit on a moment when the importance of the question has become obvious to everyone – not just Whitehall mandarins or foreign policy wonks. Afghanistan – temporarily a sideshow to Western adventures in Iraq – has been moving steadily back to centre stage.

And that's rather literally the case at the Tricycle Theatre in London, which is currently showing a production – or a kind of theatrical caravanserai – called The Great Game. In an extraordinarily (and admirably) ambitious enterprise Nicholas Kent, the theatre's Artistic Director, has commissioned a whole string of writers to produce short plays on themes from Afghan history – from 1842, when 16,000 British soldiers and camp followers were killed during the retreat from Kabul, to the present. Watching all of them takes up an entire day – an experience which is bookended with a kind of Curzonian return. You begin with redcoat buglers outside the walls of Jalalabad and end with British squaddies on the ramparts of a firebase in Helmand.

That we have travelled a very long way to end up in the same place is inescapably part of the point of the event. More than one of the writers involved takes the opportunity to point out that there's nothing new about the problems we now face in that country. Stephen Jeffreys' play about the disastrous retreat from Kabul, for example, has Jemma Redgrave reading out extracts from the journal of Lady Florentina Sale – which discourse on the particular savagery of those who believe they're engaged in jihad. David Edgar's piece, Black Tulips, implicitly treats the audience as a group of raw Soviet conscripts, being tutored in the hazards – and the righteousness – of their "fraternal" enterprise. There is talk of a surge and air superiority and, just in case someone still doesn't get it, a gung-ho Soviet officer announces that "we'll leave a better place than the one we found".

Our solipsism is partly responsible for the effect of inverted deja vu. We can't look at a historical play without looking for ourselves, after all. But it's also clear that the history of Afghanistan does have real lessons for those seeking to create a stable country now – and bitter ironies as well. Ron Hutchinson's play, Durand's Line, details the breathtaking high-handedness of the British in driving the borders of what it saw as a "buffer state" against the Russians right through the middle of the Pashtun homeland. "Your entire country is in the wrong place," Sir Mortimer Durand, who drew up the line, tells the Amir when he mildly tries to explain that imaginary lines on a map may not have much impact on the ground. There are plays too which remind us of how the CIA eagerly undermined the secular Soviet-sponsored regime of Najibullah by feeding weapons and cash to fundamentalist mujahedin. As the day proceeds, your sense of knowing hindsight is steadily stroked and plumped.

Then something rather extraordinary happens. Richard Norton-Taylor, a journalist who has collaborated with the Tricycle on its critically-acclaimed tribunal plays (which dramatise the results of real inquiries and hearings) provides two short verbatim pieces – collages of quotations from those currently engaged in Afghanistan – including the current Oxfam Policy Director there and the Commander of Nato/ISAF forces in the country from 2006/7. And suddenly the mood is warily hopeful again – convinced that with enough goodwill (and a new and more enlightened President) the country can still be turned round.

For around five hours we've seen outside interventions falter and delusive hopes crumble. We have been tutored towards an isolationist dread of the region as the graveyard of naïve adventurers and ill-informed improvers. And then, up from between the flagstones of two works which insist on the intractability of the task, writhe these little tendrils of per- sistent hope. Who knows what Afghanistan will look like in another 100 years' time – but if it is still as urgent a question as it is now it will be irrepressible good intentions that are to blame.

Frank's offense is not to take it on the chin

I was curious enough about headlines about Frank Lampard's radio "rant" to check out an internet recording of his call to a LBC talk show to protest after the host had questioned his character and parental devotion. I must say it didn't sound like a rant to me – it sounded like a man justifiably angry that a broadcaster was blithely turning a domestic unhappiness into phone-call fodder. Indeed he seemed to keep his temper remarkably well given the fatuous defence of public interest that was offered for the original offence.

I haven't a clue whether Lampard has behaved well or badly in relation to his former partner – or whether he's a good father going through a bad time or a mediocre one angry that he's been called on it. Not knowing these things I would not presume to pontificate about such matters in public. It is interesting though how a forceful reply to a widely-disseminated insult is automatically converted into a "rant" – the sidling implication being that he's out of control yet again. There are a huge number of ways that you can provoke tabloid moralists and bully pulpit preachers – but they particularly hate it when their victims decline to take the insults silently.

Painted into a corner when getting rid of rubbish

Omid Djalili had a nice sketch in his television programme the other day poking fun at the fine-tooth comb our detritus now has to pass through before we can discard it. It showed a man visiting a recycling centre – encountering finer and finer categories, including "Articles by Richard Littlejohn", "Free DVD Attached to Newspapers (Westerns)". The punchline revealed that all these apertures fed onto one undifferentiated rubbish pile.

For some things though there simply are no openings. I tried to get rid of a stack of old paint cans the other day – only to be turned away from the recycling centre. I then discovered that the only legitimate way to dispose of them is to call up the City of London Hazardous Waste disposal office. They will now send me a form on which I must itemise each can. Then a contractor will be dispatched to pick up the cans.

Being a dutiful citizen I'm going to stick to procedure – but I can't help wondering how many people simply can't be bothered and bung them all in a black bag so they end up in landfill anyway.