Tricycle Theatre, London NW6
  Opened 24 April, 2009

I have remarked before on the thrill of hearing an audience fall silent, rapt in the drama. At the Tricycle, though, you can quite often hear that slightly different and more impressive non-noise, the silence of an audience completely gripped by reality. It’s a fairly regular occurrence during that venue’s productions of its transcription-based “tribunal” plays, and I noticed it more than once during the eleven-hour-plus marathon of seeing all three programmes in the Great Game season in one day. (The programmes run in repertoire until mid-June, with some special “trilogy days”.)
Although these are works of imagination by a clutch of respected writers, many are based on specific episodes of Afghan history and rely on factual testimony. Stephen Jeffreys’ play, dealing with the British retreat from Kabul in 1842, includes extracts from the journal of captive Lady Florentina Sale which struck the theatre dumb; likewise, in David Greig’s piece, an account of the torture and murder of former president Najibullah by the Taliban in 1996. Richard Bean’s play also induces an uneasy silence as we watch officials of a contemporary British NGO admiring a heart-rending cover image for their newsletter in much the same terms for which an Afghan warlord had just been condemned for taking to troth a ten-year-old girl. (In Bean’s case the response may be complicated by uncertainty, after the furore over his England People Very Nice, whether he is grinding an anti-Islamist axe or simply regarding a situation unflinchingly; I think the latter.)
Each programme consists of four plays of 20-30 minutes each plus some entr’actes; in parts 1 (which covers the period 1842-1930) and 2 (1979-1996) these latter are historical or more recent monologues or duologues by Siba Shakib, in part 3 (1996-2009) brief montages of verbatim testimony from various Afghan and foreign parties compiled by Richard Norton-Taylor, the editor of most of the tribunal plays. Of the trilogy, the most recent part felt to me the least dynamic, and not entirely due to theatre fatigue. Ben Ockrent engages in some unsubtle irony-of-hindsight about both 9/11 and the most recent economic boom; Abi Morgan’s play about attempts to restart a rural girls’ school never really gets anywhere; and after Bean’s piece Simon Stephens’ Canopy Of Stars, although written with his usual potent mixture of despair yet doggedness, is a deliberately irresolute way to end. Part 1 includes Jeffreys’ play, a rather callow piece by Amit Gupta which serves principally to set the historical scene for Joy Wilkinson’s work which follows it, and a mordant scene by Ron Hutchinson about the 19th-century drawing of the Afghan frontier, which suggests that the very notion of a firm border in such a region is inimical to the local culture. Part 2 is the strongest: Greig’s play sits alongside a nice reverse-chronological set of Soviet army briefings from the 1980s by David Edgar, a piece about U.S. covert funding of the mujahideen by J.T. Rogers which is all the stronger for being so dispassionate, and a horrifying vision of Taliban justice from Colin Teevan.
Among the cast of 15, Jemma Redgrave proudly carries her family’s theatrical/radical torch, Lolita Chakrabarti excels at sincere but doomed negotiations, Jemima Rooper firmly exorcises memories of her as a lesbian schoolgirl ghost in TV’s Hex, and Paul Bhattacharjee is as luminous as ever even when hidden behind a huge beard (whose elastic was visible). No answers are offered, and even the palliative of liberal guilt is avoided. Such Tricycle projects are active engagements with our citizenship, not simply as Britons but an urgent re-affirmation that, as John Donne put it 400 years ago, “I am involved in mankind”.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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