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The Great Game – Parts 1, 2 and 3 review at Tricycle London

We are used to Kilburn’s Tricycle Theatre punching seriously above its weight in terms of addressing real-life political issues of national and international importance. Now, in what is undoubtedly the venue’s most ambitious and far-reaching project to date, artistic director Nicolas Kent has commissioned – and now co-directed, with Indhu Rubasingham – a series of 12 original short plays from leading and up and coming British contemporary writers on the subject of Afghanistan, a country which, in Kent’s words, is “surely going to be the main focus of British, European and American policy for at least the next decade”. Yet, as he continued early last year, “not only was there almost no public debate about this, there was very little reporting and almost no artistic response, except a handful of novels.” Now, however, he has sought to redress this imbalance and address a story – or series of them – that open our eyes (and occasionally, our hearts) to just what has been happening there, most recently in our name again, between 1842 – where the cycle begins, with British troops finding themselves on the run from an Afghan uprising and 16,000 army soldiers and camp followers are killed – to the present day, where the cycle ends with a soldier, back home in Manchester from a tour of duty there, being told by his wife, “You are changing nothing, Jay. You can change nothing”.

Those plays, by Stephen Jeffreys and Simon Stephens respectively, bookend an event that can be seen in three parts on separate week nights or across a long day every Saturday and Sunday. And if Jeffreys and Stephens both highlight the impotence at the heart of the practical response to our interventions there, this theatrical response is charged with the kind of thought and perception of the continuum of history that is chastening and constantly enlightening.

It may occasionally be dense and difficult to absorb it all, but it acquires a cumulative and eventually shattering power that both compels and repays serious attention. The playwrights, including such established names as Ron Hutchinson, David Edgar and the ever-prolific David Greig, as well as newer writers like Ben Ockrent, JT Rogers and Abi Morgan, bring a punchy series of stories to life, from the predicament of aid workers (chillingly brought to life by both Colin Teevan and Richard Bean) to the constantly complex machinations of the behind the scenes political machinery, as a parliamentary private secretary to the British foreign secretary tries to find a new approach to policy in Amit Gupta’s play.

There are no answers here, but a lot of questions. And Kent and Rubasingham’s production fields them with a propulsive momentum that seldom slackens, as the plays seamlessly shift in locations with the minimum of scenic fuss, and a strong ensemble cast that sees Jemima Rooper, Jemma Redgrave, Lolita Chakrabarti, Ramon Tikaram, Paul Bhattacharjee and others superbly inhabiting a wide range of characters. This is a day of reverberating intelligence, insight and potency that takes the Afghanistan we only know from newspaper headlines and puts a human (and just occasionally inhumane) face on a country and history we know too little of.

Production Information

Tricycle, London, April 17-June 14

Authors
Stephen Jeffreys, Ron Hutchinson, Amit Gupta, Joy Wilkinson, David Edgar, J T Rogers, David Greig, Colin Teevan, Ben Ockrent, Abi Morgan, Richard Bean, Simon Stephens
Directors
Nicolas Kent, Indhu Rubasingham
Producer
Tricycle Theatre
Cast includes
Jemima Rooper, Paul Bhattacharjee, Jemma Redgrave, Lolita Chakrabarti
Running time
7hrs 30mins
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