The Great Game: Afghanistan, Tricycle Theatre, London

Political plotting at its very best

Michael Coveney
Thursday 24 April 2014 04:30
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Twelve plays about Afghanistan in Kilburn? The very thought of it might drive you to enquire after the possibility of seeing 12 plays about Kilburn in Afghanistan. But this triumphant Tricycle occasion – four short new plays in each part, all three parts played together at weekends – is more than a crash course in history and political skulduggery, though it's that, too. It's a wonderful theatrical presentation of a terrible story.

We must always remember that Osama bin Laden's training in Islamic militancy happened courtesy of a programme part funded by the US. As the Taliban are resurgent in Pakistan, and there is fresh hope that the Obama administration might do something, now seems a good time to take stock.

Abi Morgan's The Night Is Darkest Before the Dawn dramatises an impassioned stand-off between a rural drugs baron and a female teacher who wants to re-open the school for girls with American aid money. Meanwhile, in David Greig's startling Miniskirts of Kabul, we see a "writer" interviewing the pro-communist President Najibullah while under house arrest, and imagining his imminent death, a descriptive passage as candidly horrifying as anything in recent fiction.

The drugs baron and Najibullah are both played, with glowering intensity and wicked charm, by Ramon Tikaram, a double typical of the acting ingenuity on show. Jemma Redgrave plays the real-life Victorian diarist Lady Florentina Sale in Stephen Jeffreys' vivid curtain-raiser, Bugles at the Gates of Jalalabad, as well as some hard-boiled American political types, and new star Jemima Rooper comes through strongly as the "imaginative" interviewer and a ferociously upset British army wife left holding the baby in Simon Stephens' concluding Canopy of Stars.

That last play shows how the British mission has changed from the colonial impetus on the borders with India to one of anti-terrorist righteousness. The chronology of the plays also charts the shady manoeuvrings of the super powers (David Edgar makes a brilliant contribution with a series of Soviet military briefings in Black Tulips reflecting skewed political motivation), as well as the internecine crises, with Ron Hutchinson's hilarious Durand's Line and Amit Gupta's Campaign revealing the Foreign Office's smoothly patronising interventions.

The productions, by Nicolas Kent and Indhu Rubasingham, smartly incorporate some telling historical vignettes by the Iranian writer Siba Shakib, and Pamela Howard's design evokes, to stunning effect, the Twin Towers crumbling as a drawbridge of white opium poppies is lowered into place.

Each play runs for about half an hour, so the overall playing time is barely seven hours. If anything drags, it's the intervals. An inspirational highlight of the year so far.

To 14 June (020-7328 1000; www.tricycle.co.uk )

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