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Conversation: Director Nicolas Kent Brings Real Drama of Afghanistan Onstage

Starting with the 1842 Anglo-Afghan War and running through to the present day conflict in Afghanistan, a new theater production called “The Great Game: Afghanistan” attempts to educate audiences about the history of modern foreign intervention in that region with an entertaining cycle of 12 plays. The name of the production comes from a phrase used to describe a historic rivalry between the British and Russian empires to take over as much of Central Asia as each could.

“The Great Game: Afghanistan” was first staged at the Tricycle Theater in London in 2009, and is now on tour in the U.S. It opens today in Minneapolis before heading to Berkeley, CA and New York.

Nicolas Kent is the artistic director of the Tricycle Theater, a company known for original productions that address important, politically-charged contemporary events.

During the show’s recent run at the Shakespeare Theater in Washington, D.C., Kent joined me at our studio for a conversation:

A full transcript and a scene from ‘The Great Game’ are after the jump.


JEFFREY BROWN: Welcome to Art Beat. I’m Jeffrey Brown. Today we’re discussing “The Great Game: Afghanistan.” It’s a theater production now touring the United States. It originated at the Tricycle Theatre in London, and joining me is Nicolas Kent, the theater’s artistic director. Welcome to you.

NICOLAS KENT: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: This is an unusual undertaking, which we will try to explain, but first help us understand the origin. How did this begin and why?

NICOLAS KENT: In 2008 I was very aware in England that we were getting very little reporting about Afghanistan. We were getting a huge amount of reporting about Iraq, but nothing about Afghanistan. The focus has been on Afghanistan just after the Twin Towers came down, and then it switched to Iraq. And yet the war was going on, we were taking casualties and there was very little in the newspapers and no artistic response at all. There had been a huge amount of response to the Iraq War, but nothing about Afghanistan. So my curiosity got me and I thought, I need to read and find out more about this.

JEFFREY BROWN: So the mechanics: You started to talk about turning this into a day of theater, but the mechanics here are quite interesting. Three productions each with four mini-plays, half-hour plays within it, with any number — well, a particular number of playwrights. How did you organize it?

NICOLAS KENT: It goes in a chronological sequence. We start off with the British intervention.

JEFFREY BROWN: In the 1800s.

NICOLAS KENT: 1842, yes, the biggest defeat of the British army ever. We had an expedition force of 16,000 and we lost 15,999. There was one survivor. It starts with that particular story and it goes on through the drawing of the border in west Waziristan, the partition of west Waziristan, which has led to a lot of the problems we’ve now inherited. It goes on with the coming of independence of Afghanistan, again in a war from the British in 1919.

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s important to say that each of these parts is written by a different playwright. How did you organize that and how do you organize that into a dramatic whole? How much interaction, for example, was there between or among the playwrights?

NICOLAS KENT: There was no interaction amongst the playwrights.


NICOLAS KENT: Except one particular playwright who’s written a play that frames the play of another, but that’s the only interaction. I was rather like — I’ve always compared myself a little like an air-traffic controller. I was trying to bring all these planes, or plays, into land, dealing with each one, dealing with a separate chronological part of Afghan western history. Some of the plays are about American involvement, some about the Russian involvement and some about the British involvement.

JEFFREY BROWN: We talked about one of the themes here, as well, especially from the beginning, there’s a character in one of the early ones, a British soldier says, We’re stuck in a country we don’t understand. That’s one of the clear running themes throughout. As you’ve developed this here, what else hit you, maybe either unexpected or that kind of surprised you in the themes as you went through history in trying to understand what’s going on?

NICOLAS KENT: It was very much my feeling to start the play was the same as what that soldier says: We’re stuck a country we don’t understand. And we’re stuck in a war now that I think a lot of people don’t understand. As the themes went through and as I explored and researched the history I was very much aware how history repeats itself, how Afghanistan has been invaded very easily a number of times, that people have had enormous trouble holding the country — that’s always been the problem — how the Russians had the same problems that the Americans and the British and the European powers are now encountering. I was also very struck about how complex a lot of the issues were in Afghanistan, much more complex than it’s normally painted. There are many, many tribes, obviously, and many ethnic divisions in Afghanistan and we tend to think of Afghanistan as one country but there Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras, there are all sorts of different tribes, and just bringing those together to meld a country is something that has been going on for 150 years, and it’s still nowhere near complete.

JEFFREY BROWN: Let me ask you finally, you mention that you saw this as a day of theater. That’s an interesting idea. I know you have experience in this in other productions, but it does ask a lot of people. What’s been your experience with people, and I should explain that you can go and see each individual play.

NICOLAS KENT: On one evening. On a Wednesday or a Thursday.

JEFFREY BROWN: And then come again and see all three, but you do offer it as it’s touring around.

NICOLAS KENT: The weekends we to a trilogy day.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what’s that like? What have you heard from people?

NICOLAS KENT: I think people have really enjoyed it. That seems to me it’s the best way to see it. You have continuity. You wrestle with the history of Afghanistan, you are entertained, you’re challenged, you laugh, you cry, you go through all sorts of emotions. It seems to me if we are asking soldiers to fight in Afghanistan, the least we can do as civilians is to sit down and spend a day thinking about the issues and why we are sending our troops there and what is happening to the Afghan population.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Nicolas Kent is the artistic director of the Tricycle Theatre, which is now putting on “The Great Game: Afghanistan.” Thanks for talking to us.

NICOLAS KENT: Thank you very much.

JEFFREY BROWN: And I’m Jeffrey Brown for Art Beat. Thanks for joining us.

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