Buglers in their scarlet tunics in Bugles at Jalalabad
It is almost a commonplace to say that the current Allied engagement in Afghanistan wasnâ€™t meant to be like this. In April, 2006 the Secretary of Defence, John Reid expressed the hope that “we would be perfectly happy to leave in three years and without firing one shot because our job is to protect the reconstruction.â€ With hindsight we can laugh at his optimism, but he wasnâ€™t the first.
As Lady Florentia Sale put it, â€œit is easy to argue on the wisdom or folly of conduct after the catastrophe has taken place.â€ She wrote that in the 1840s after witnessing the disastrous retreat from Kabul in the First Anglo-Afghan War . Those words also form an ominous preface to The Great Game Afghanistan , a series of 12 short plays about Western involvement in that country over the last 170 years which is currently running at the Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn. Interspersed between the plays, short monologues, dialogues, and verbatim reports from key players and observers give further insight into the situation.
The plays are broken into three parts, each of which deals with a different era. Firstly, weâ€™re introduced to the era of British involvement from the 1840s to 1920s, then the arrival of the Russians (and the Americans seeking to defeat them) in the eighties, before finishing with Operation Enduring Freedom, the campaign launched by the USA and later NATO in 2001. Theatre goers can either spread this over three nights during the week, or one day of intense theatre-going over the weekend. Autumn and I plumped for a Sunday theatre-athon that started at 11.30 in the morning and finished more than ten hours later at 9.55pm. By the time we finally stumbled onto the tube home, the fine company of actors (including Jemma Redgrave and Nabil Elouhabi from East Enders) felt like old friends (weâ€™d never spoken to).
The Tricycle is famous for its political productions, and has been called â€œBritainâ€™s foremost political theatreâ€ by The Guardian. For this production, each play was written by a different playwright, many of them famous for their politically-engaged work. However, if this is political theatre, it gives no easy answers to the fiendishly knotty issues raised. To help the less informed members of the audience, a hefty programme contains a modern history of Afghanistan and a â€˜Further readingâ€™ section stuffed with pertinent analysis.
The play cycle shows us that Afghanistanâ€™s complex present arises out of an equally complex past. But even if youâ€™d never heard of The Great Game or President Najibullah, the drama is still funny, sad, exhilarating and always engaging. Autumn, hasn’t been following the issues as closely as me, still enjoyed herself.
Proceedings start with British army buglers discussing the massacre of Elphinstoneâ€™s army in Bugles at the Gates of Jalalabad , with Lady Sale sitting at the side of the stage as a solitary chorus recounting her experiences. Tales are told of the slaughter of British and Indian troops, and so begins one the central exercises repeated throughout these plays and through history: constructing tales about the Afghans. Savagery and martial prowess are defining characteristics of â€˜the Afghanâ€™ to the present day.
A bloody handprint seen on a wall at Eastcheap, the City of London. A sadly appropriate image.
Not only do foreigners ideas about the peoples of Afghanistan loop forwards through time, but the various notions of how Western interests are best served becomes familiar too. We hear stories of absurd self-serving politicians, meddling and then disengagement, the state of women as a genuine concern and as a pretext for military action. There are â€˜surgesâ€™ hailed as the solution, as well as the ever familiar support for tribal insurgents to further geo-political ends. I had no idea that in the 1920s, long before Charlie Wilsonâ€™s War , the British were supporting conservative religious elements within the country against the reforming, but anti-imperialist king AmÄnullÄh KhÄn . The plays not only weave themes, but also histories. In Campaign we learn of Amanullah Khan’s advisor Mahmud Tarzi , who turns up in person in Now is the Time . A map of key political figures and military engagements gradually becomes discernible.
Two of the highlights for me where Durandâ€™s Line , in which Amir Rahman Khan is pushed into signing his name to the new border between British India and his country in 1893 by the Foreign Secretary Sir Mortimer Durand . The two, richly comic characters bounce off one another like a regal Jeeves and a very peevish Wooster playing a metaphysical chess game with the future of Khyber region. Amir Rahman says of Durand’s plans, “It is a kind of magic with you – to believe that is not the map which describes the world but which brings it into being.” Like the Radcliffe Line fifty years later, the consequences of the division would not be painless.
In Miniskirts in Kabul , a meeting between a journalist and the communist president of Afghanistan, Mohammad Najibullah , set in the imagination of the interviewer shines with a strange lyrical quality. This complex manâ€™s perspective on his regime gains added emotional intensity from his imminent death – when the pair watch a video of The Spice Girls singing Wannabe , the song seems to embody the melancholic hedonism of Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam . Both the stories of Najibullah and AmÄnullÄh remind us of a tension between city and country, conservatives and reformers, within the country itself.
The final plays bring us bang up to date with the history of the last ten years: the cruel Taliban, initial Western disengagement followed by aid agencies, and then the military involvement that is so familiar. In the theatre, it all looks like the perfect Gordian knot of a conundrum, but on the ground itâ€™s a bloody tragedy.