"The Great Game" is an ambitious new work from the UK currently being presented by The Public Theater. NY1 contributing critic David Cote of Time Out New York filed the following review.
In the past nine years, Afghanistan has loomed large over the national mood, not to mention the nightly news. Kabul, Kandahar, Jalalabad: we’re now familiar with these exotic sounding cities. If you think you’ve learned enough about the region, "The Great Game: Afghanistan" reminds us that we’ve barely scratched the surface.
A cycle of 12 plays and assorted monologues commissioned and staged by directors Nicolas Kent and Indhu Rubasingham, "The Great Game" is an English import that spans 160 years of history in seven hours of drama. At the center of this epic is mountainous, landlocked, tribal Afghanistan, which served and fought many an empire. We begin in 1842, with an occupying British army besieged by outraged Afghans who resent being used as a pawn between the English and Russian empires.
A land torn between modernizers and orthodox Islamists, Afghanistan undergoes successive waves of reform and fundamentalist revolt, each time lurching one step forward and two steps back. Lest you think the authors advocate for a more Westernized Afghanistan, they dramatize in stark terms how the British, the Russians and most recently, Americans have made and broken promises to the Afghan people, actively precipitating chaos and violence. Part two of this cycle concerns the bloody 10 year Russian occupation from 1979 to 1789, and the simultaneous CIA funding of the mujahedeen, who helped drive out the Soviets. Those same jihadists, of course, would later become the Taliban and members of al-Qaeda, who take center stage in the contemporary third part.
Given so much historical and ideological material, so many roles and periods, there is inevitable unevenness in the writing. But the production boasts a strong ensemble of English and Middle Eastern actors, including stage royalty Jemma Redgrave, as well as fierce, committed turns by Daniel Rabin, Rick Warden, Nabil Elouahabi, Raad Rawi and others in the 14 member ensemble. Ultimately, the piece has a cumulative impact, as you see the pattern in the carpet: generations of imperialists trying to impose their concepts of law and morality on a foreign land.
Although the weekend marathon performances -- 10 and a half hours altogether -- are the best way to absorb this massive mosaic, any part of "The Great Game" is bound to be an eye-opener.