More Proof That War Is Not a Game

Posted September 21, 2010 at 5:46pm

In the play “The Great Game: Afghanistan,” soldiers are killed in poppy fields, warlords marry young girls and extremists run around with big guns.

It is a dangerous place where if the Taliban doesn’t kill you, a bomb dropped thousands of feet above you will.

“Great Game,” with performances at Sidney Harman Hall until Saturday, is an intelligent take on the intricacies surrounding Afghanistan. London’s Tricycle Theater Company has triumphed in putting together an ambitious play that tackles the pertinent issues in Afghanistan and the surrounding region. A battery of playwrights collaborated to assemble a dozen fact-based stories chronicling Afghanistan’s history in three parts, starting from the mid-1800s to the present.

“Great Game” is brutally honest, and directors Nicolas Kent and Indhu Rubasingham are careful to present these vignettes through various vantage points. The players are solid and convincing in their difficult roles. They drive home the never-ending questions of how to operate in a country where more than half of the citizenry cannot read or write, electricity and indoor plumbing are luxuries, and some families do not remember a time when an occupying military was not knocking on their front doors.

The problem with “Great Game” is its disconnected “verbatim” scenes — transcripts of discussions on Afghanistan recited by the actors — that bore rather than enlighten the audience. Thankfully, these are minimal.

For American audiences, the play’s third part, “Enduring Freedom,” might be the most fascinating. It takes place in 1996 with a frantic CIA field officer, Gary Schroen (played by Michael Cochrane), pleading with a high-ranking suit from the State Department at the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad over funding for Afghanistan.

Schroen insists a “new breed” of radical Islamic extremists is destabilizing Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the region is poised to become the “center for global terrorism.” He warns of Osama bin Laden and the hundreds of millions of dollars backing his collection of men ready to kill Americans, and he reminds the senior State officer of a rash of domestic attacks in the U.S., mainly 1993’s World Trade Center bombing.

The State officer, Robin Raphel (played by Jemma Redgrave), assistant U.S. secretary of State for South Asia, is not impressed. She explains to Schroen that the Clinton administration is more interested in managing terrorism than wiping it out.

In “Enduring Freedom,” Schroen follows that disappointing meeting with a series of discussions with Afghan’s minister of defense, Ahmad Shah Massoud (played by Daniel Rabin), with nothing to offer but a promise the United States will back his fight against the Taliban.

Within five years — with the U.S. backing nonexistent — the extremists toppled the Afghan government, Massoud was assassinated, and terrorists attacked the United States on Sept. 11.

Fast-forward to the present, and “Great Game” transports you to a conversation between two British soldiers (played by Karl Davies and Tom McKay) who are surveying a mountain outside Kabul and pondering their role in the war. Despite claims from military leaders who acknowledge Afghanistan’s Helmand Province is the epicenter for the world’s opium, the soldiers are skeptical about what effect, if any, they have in deterring al-Qaida suspects from accessing the lucrative money from the drug trade and stopping Taliban rebels from ruining the lives of women and children.

This scene, as with much of “Great Game,” helps spark a conversation about foreign policy, war and what action to take to prevent another massive terrorist attack on U.S. soil.

Americans are again asked to pay attention to the “graveyard of empires” as the U.S. involvement in Iraq continues to disappear from the headlines.