Thoughts on a day playing the Great Game

Shortly after the thousands of runners thundered past the theater for the Twin Cities marathon Guthrie patrons had the opportunity for a different kind of marathon: spending a day watching all three parts of Tricycle Theatre’s “The Great Game: Afghanistan.”

I was unable to make the full committment, but took in the first two parts on Sunday. Even at just 5 hours it was an overwhelming experience, with a huge amount of information and history crammed into the show.

One of the advantages of doing the daylong event is sharing the experience with the same group of audience members, and chatting with them at the intermissions, and between the parts.

Here are some observations and thoughts arising from the experience.

—This morning listening the latest news out of Afghanistan and Pakistan on the radio suddenly made a lot more sense. Well, maybe not sense, but it was a little more understandable.

—If ever there was an embodiment of the statement ‘those who do not learn from history are destined to repeat it’ it is Afghanistan. There were more than a few ironic guffaws from the audience during Part One, which examines the British attempts to control the area starting in 1842, at statements from the would-be conquerors of the 19th century, which sound uncannily close to contemporary views of the outside interests in Afghanistan.

— Despite its epic length, The Great Game displays the power of the short drama, comprising as it does of a dozen plays, interspersed by statements and speeches from major figures in Afghan history. Some of the plays are more engaging than others, and almost all of them are heavy on the exposition. However as Tricycle’s Artistic Director Nick Kent mentioned when we talked a week or so ago, they are indeed like buses. If you don’t like one, just wait a bit, and another will be along behind it.

—The first two parts of “The Great Game: Afghanistan” ended with the lights suddenly coming up, leaving the audience blinking in mild bemusement. Several people commented on how it felt abrupt, and incomplete. On reflection though this sense of dislocation seems appropriate as a mild reminder of the abrupt changes which many people have experienced over the years as a result of the conflicts in Afghanistan.

— In the audience, some people were taking the epic side of “The Great Game: Afghanistan” very seriously. I met a gentleman called John from Denver who declined to give his last name, who, having read that Oskar Eustis of the Public Theater in New York thinks this show is one of the most important pieces of drama to be shown in the US this year jumped in his car and headed to Minneapolis. When I met him on Sunday afternoon he was partway through his second viewing of the entire cycle. He told me he was seeing linkages between the plays which he had not experienced the first time round. John said he didn’t think seeing the plays one night at a time could have the same effect. He wasn’t sure when he was leaving for home, as he was still pacing himself.

—It turned out there were other challenges during the first day of the entire cycle. Apparently the automated city parking lot across the street from the Guthrie has ticket machines which are designed for a maximum of 10 hour stays. To watch the entire cycle with all the breaks takes 12 hours, and a lot of people found themselves on Saturday night unable to exit the lot. The Guthrie staff say it’s all been sorted now.

—During the second part of the show, which covers the Russian Invasion of Afghanistan and the rise of the Taliban, I sat next to Said Lotfullah Najafizada, an editor with the Quqnoos News Agency in Kabul. He’s in the Twin Cities as part of the World Press Institute Fellowship. He specifically asked to see the Russian section as it covered the part of history before he was born. He somewhat wistfully pointed out he had lived through the third part of the play covering from September 2001 to 2008. As the lights came up at the end, he was blinking too. When asked what he thought he said he thought it was good, although there were some elements where it was clear Tricycle has used a lot of dramatic license. I told him about the much used-quote from Robert Burns asking that “some great power give us the gift to see ourselves as others see us,” but it seemed to me he needed more time to process what he had seen and to give me a considered response.

—One of Sunday’s weirder episodes for me was sitting next to two two long-time denizens of the Twin Cities theater scene, who taken together must have close to a century of dramatic experience. For some reason the first show launched without the now traditional exhortation to mute, kill, or otherwise control your mobile communicators. Perhaps as a result I witnessed these two gentlemen who I think I should not identify for various reasons, spent a good 10 minutes grunting, beeping, groaning and generally wrestling with some misbehaving cell phone function. They relocated for later parts of the show.

Now, 24 hours after leaving the theater the images and voices of “The Great Game: Afghanistan” are still running through my thoughts.

If there is anyone else who went through the experience and wants to share their observations please feel free to share in the comments box.

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