What follows is a transcript of the specially recorded podcast you can hear in the embedded player below.
Welcome to our new online radio programme, The Exchange – an exchange of views and ideas between you and the British Council. My name’s Rosie Goldsmith and I’ll be telling you about some of the British Council’s people and projects, in the UK and round the world – and in exchange you tell us what you think!
Today we’re in Washington to witness a theatrical phenomenon.
Unsparing and provocative theatre; 12 plays performed over a marathon seven and a half hours, dramatising 160 years of Afghan conflict with the British, the Russians and the Americans – right up to the present day.
Together the plays are called The Great Game, Rudyard Kipling’s name for the western power games of the 19th century in Central Asia.
Picture a theatre in downtown Washington; but the audience aren’t in sequins and tuxedos: these are the top brass of the US military, politicians, aid workers, soldiers and wounded veterans – all with a link to Afghanistan and all here for a day-long private performance of The Great Game.
It’s been requested by the Pentagon as a theatrical master-class in Afghanistan.
Not comfortable viewing – so why do it?
Doug Wilson, of the US Department of Defense, is the event host.
Doug Wilson – Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs
This was a no-brainer. This is an opportunity to see a series of remarkable plays that put in context the history and culture of a nation in which many nations – including ours now and many of our allies, are engaged.
Brigadier-General Steven Busby is the most senior military figure here.
Brigadier General Steven Busby
Anything that we can arm our young men and women with to help them succeed and survive in whatever situation we put them in is very useful. Those who come here will understand who they are connecting with and what their mission really is.
So, here we have the mighty Pentagon consulting a small British theatre company for lessons in war. The Great Game plays were first shown at the Tricycle Theatre in London in 2009, to great acclaim.
General Sir David Richards, Britain’s Chief of Defence Staff, was effusive: he said that if he’d seen the plays before being deployed to Afghanistan, he’d have made a much better commander.
Simon Gammell helped broker The Great Game’s US trip. He’s Head of Arts in the US for the British Council, one of the event’s main sponsors.
Simon Gammell – British Council
Of course the precedent was set where the shows were in London 18 months ago when the British military establishment did exactly the same things – took a day at the Tricycle and filled it up with serving officers. I think it’s an extraordinary tribute to the power of what Nick Kent and Tricycle have achieved, that they made a piece of work so compelling that the military want to view it as part of their attempts to get it right in Afghanistan.
The Tricycle’s Artistic Director Nicolas Kent is in Washington for this historic occasion.
I think the true role of the theatre is to speak and communicate to people and it is not often you can do that on current affairs in such a direct way and actually change people’s perceptions and make people rethink things they’re already doing. I hope these plays very much do that.
Richard Norton Taylor
That’s the way Nick Kent likes to operate. He is inspired by the great game, by any really current controversy really.
Richard Norton-Taylor is the Security and Defence Correspondent of The Guardian Newspaper, and also an award-winning playwright. His ‘Tribunal Plays’, about contemporary issues such as Guantanamo Bay, the arms-to-Iraq inquiry and the death of scientist David Kelly, were all produced in collaboration with Nicholas Kent. They worked together again on The Great Game.
Richard Norton Taylor
Nick decided to commission various playwrights to write their own plays, versions, but inspired by the history of Afghanistan. Nick Kent goes about this by asking these people to learn up, to read up, get as much as they know of what actually happened in history – interviewing people.
Interviewing whom – Afghans, Americans?
Richard Norton Taylor
I interviewed various players – US generals, one or two taliban commanders, aid workers, Hillary Clinton, Stan McChrystal, General Petraeus – to have different voices in between some of the plays.
The plays are all based on fact and real people. From British Empire governors to Afghan amirs; villagers to charity workers; tribal leaders to allied soldiers. Debates about democracy, women’s rights and marriage: The Great Game has it all. Twelve major playwrights; 12 plays, each about half an hour long; each set in Afghanistan, molded into a trilogy and performed chronologically. Polemics aplenty but no blame or moral judgement. The idea is: you make up your own mind.
I think they do very much make you put yourself in the position of the Afghan. They look at it very much from the Afghan cultural perspective and historical perspective, which I think is very overlooked by the West because we don’t know so much about it.
In 2010, supported by the British Council, The Great Game toured the US, winning hearts and minds wherever it went. US NATO Commander, General David Petraeus, was alerted: the plays fitted in perfectly with his vision of a successful army grounded not just in military and political studies, as he put it, but in the arts and humanities too. One day Nicolas Kent got a call from the Pentagon.
I was called to a meeting very early in the morning to go to the Pentagon to discuss doing it in their theatre. But their theatre is in the sub basement, is very small and wasn’t quite big enough for the play. The idea of getting the scenery down there would have been immensely difficult. Added to that, we have quite a lot of explosives and firearms. It had taken me 20 minutes to penetrate the security of The Pentagon, then I thought that getting firearms in there would probably take a day or two!
The Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Harman Hall in Washington offered to host Nick Kent’s company for free. It’s now nearly evening. We’re two-thirds of the way through the trilogy. What does the target audience of officers, soldiers and aid workers make of the plays so far?
VOX POPS (not named)
The arts is one field, some of the military strategies are a different field. Left brain, right brain: it’s good to use both to help solve a problem as complex as Afghanistan. So these cultural awareness pieces help us understand a little bit more about what it’s like to have lived in a culture of 30 years of war and what the Taliban’s really done in the country, rather than just walk in on a one-year deployment and walk out.
We get our history in soundbites and stereotypes. And especially we Americans think we can go out and impose democracy on all sorts of countries without really understanding the culture. You don’t necessarily think of them as victims of circumstance or caught up in something they can’t control. There were several vignettes where I’ve been choking up.
We see the very intense reaction against the war by a large segment of the British population. It presented the British, I would say largely left-wing intellectual imagination trying to deal with the complexity of problems. As somebody who is basically conservative, I thought they were dealing with it very honestly and very sincerely.
In all ‘real life theatre’ you often get the real people coming to see how they’re portrayed. Guest of honour in Washington is Masood Khalili, the great Afghan poet and diplomat, whose character stars in the final part of The Great Game trilogy. His story is shocking. In 2001 Khalili was sitting with his friend, the legendary Afghan leader, Ahmed Shah Massoud, who was targeted by Al-Qaeda suicide bombers. Massoud was assassinated and Khalili seriously injured. After watching these traumas on stage, Khalili is surprisingly positive.
It is a piece of art which indeed goes to the mind and heart of the people. It is the Great Game which started in Afghanistan at the time of the British Empire and they were the real players at the time; the Americans are now playing the game and they should know it more, and to find out more about the past – their mistakes, our mistakes; their gains, our gains; their losses, our losses.
Sitting next to Masood Khalili all the way through the seven and a half hours was the Chief Executive of the British Council, Martin Davidson. The British Council has been a passionate and financial supporter of the Great Game. But should they be doing this? Martin Davidson enthusiastically defends their role to me – and the plays.
I visited the British Council offices in Kabul but in many ways I got a greater sense of what perhaps was happening on the ground in Afghanistan from the plays.
Why is the British Council promoting political theatre?
What the British Council is promoting is British theatre. And one of the glories of our theatre is that we are not afraid to tackle some pretty uncomfortable subjects while they are still very live. If you think about the play ‘Black Watch’, which was about the Black Watch regiment in Iraq; if you think about the play ‘Enron’, theatre going on around this financial crash. We actually in this country do political theatre in a very fine way. The US doesn’t. Other countries tend not to.
But this theatre is political. Hard-hitting. You weren’t afraid of that?
No. I think it’s something that is absolutely in the heart of our theatrical tradition in the UK, but also our tradition in the British Council that we actually do have these difficult conversations. It didn’t take a political position, it posed a set of political questions. And those seem to me to be exactly the sort of questions we should be asking.
How much did the British Council spend on the US tour of The Great?
We spent £30,000.
That’s a lot of money.
Yes it is. I think it’s all a question of was that money well spent? Did the UK – not the British Council – but did the UK get value in terms of our relationship with the US? The response I was hearing from people in the audience, from very, very senior administration officials and generals, was that they thought this was something that was very important for them.
Richard Norton Taylor
I was surprised when the British Council sponsored these shows, which are addressing controversial issues, which are relevant. It’s not just doing safe things. I think, good for them.
Richard Norton-Taylor, seeing the British Council in a new light. And that’s the achievement of The Great Game trilogy too – shining a new light on Afghanistan, its culture and conflicts. The current conflict in Afghanistan’s not over yet and one audience member is about to be deployed there for the first time in the coalition’s spring surge. Her name is Jody Vitori, and she is a Lt Colonel in the US Air Force.
Lieutenant Colonel Jody Vitori
I’ve been reading a lot of history books about Afghanistan to get ready to go and it’s really hard to take a bunch of names and dates and put them into useable context. So this has been really, really wonderful for me. I think the overriding theme of the play is: Afghanistan has been through this before and you are going to go but they are going to stay. And I thought this is what they have; win or lose, they live with the consequences.
The Great Game’s epic journey is almost over. It began nearly two years ago at The Tricycle Theatre in London. It’s been a massive production – 12 plays, 14 actors, their own set and lighting and technical crew. It’s been expensive, exhausting and sometimes controversial but for Indhu Rubasingham, The Great Game’s co-director, their game has paid off.
We started this project in a small theatre in West London and to realize that it could potentially have an impact on major decision makers, on policy in Afghanistan, was kind of a little bit mind-blowing really. And that a project like theatre can reach an audience that can make a change – that’s what you dream of, that’s why you go into theatre, that something you do can make a change.
That’s it from The Exchange! Do email, blog, tweet or facebook us with your views. Did you see The Great Game? What do you think of political theatre? Or of the British Council’s support of UK arts abroad?
You can hear the full interview with British Council CEO Martin Davidson below.
This is the Exchange with me Rosie Goldsmith – brought to you by the British Council.