“Ah! How beautiful is Kabul encircled by her arid mountains,” wrote the 17th-century Persian poet Saib-e-Tabrizi. But if today’s news headlines are your only image of life in distant lands, Afghanistan and it’s capital city are probably bywords for tragedy and trouble. Think ‘Afghanistan’ and you’re likely to imagine a haven for Al Qaeda jihadis, the home of fearsome tribal warlordism and the cradle of the Taliban, or a place where poppies become London’s heroin problem. In the “war on terror”, one headline reports how NATO casualties continue to rise, while another says that President Obama has approved 17,000 additional troops to be sent.

If you only know about fanatical suicide bombers and deaths of British soldiers – or maybe the dangers of policing Helmand province as seen through Sky TV’s Ross Kemp in Afghanistan – at least Khaled Hosseini's debut novel The Kite Runner (and the movie adaptation), set today’s tumultuous events in Afghanistan in a human and historical context, from the fall of the monarchy and the 1979 Soviet invasion, to the refugee exodus and the rise of the Taliban regime.

But if you still don’t know your Pashtuns from your Tajiks, or why Afghanistan has been a focal point for geopolitics down the centuries, there’s no need to fly out to the arid mountains encircling Kabul. Kilburn’s ever-fertile Tricycle Theatre is presenting The Great Game: Afghanistana festival exploring Afghan culture through 15 plays, a ten-day film programme (involving nine premieres), exhibitions, discussion sessions, writers’ talks and a series of play readings developed in conjunction with the National Theatre Studio.

Taking its title from Afghanistan’s buffer state status in the so-called “Great Game” between the British and Russian empires, the festival aims to offer the most comprehensive overview of Afghanistan's history, culture and politics ever attempted in the UK. According to Tricycle artistic director Nicolas Kent, the plan is to “open up debate, appreciation and discussion on Afghanistan’s importance to Britain as we move into the second decade of the 21st century. Afghanistan will be at the forefront of Western foreign policy for the next decade. We get daily reports in the media – yet we know very little about how the foreign policy of Britain, America, Europe and Russia towards that country has evolved over the past 175 years.”

The 15 specially commissioned plays by some of this country's and America's leading playwrights are presented in repertoire covering the festival’s three interlocking themes. Invasions & Independence 1842-1930 includes Stephen Jeffreys’ play Bugles at the Gates of Jalalabad, which looks back to 1842, when a 16,000-strong contingent of soldiers retreated from Kabul in the British Army's worst defeat in history.

In part two, Communism, the Mujahideen and the Taliban 1979-1996, David Edgar’s Black Tulips explores how Soviet troops were sent to combat backwardness, defend women's rights and build hospitals and schools and thought it would all be over in a few months.

Part three, Enduring Freedom 1996-2009, includes On the Side of the Angels by Richard Bean (whose England People Very Nice premiered earlier this year at the National Theatre), in which a new project about land rights brings unexpected results.

Directed by Kent and Indhu Rubasingham, the world premieres of the Afghan plays also include work by Ron Hutchinson, Amit Gupta, Joy Wilkinson, JT Rogers, David Greig, Colin Teevan, Ben Ockrent, Abi Morgan and Simon Stephens.

With visual arts exhibitions, concerts and films, as well as the many talks and discussions from experts on and from Afghanistan, The Great Game could help transform Afghanistan from a tale of never-ending tragedy to one that Saib-e-Tabrizi might have written about Kabul and “the thousand splendid suns that hide behind her walls”.


The Great Game: Afghanistan opened on 24 April 2009 (previews from 17 April) at the Tricycle Theatre, where it continues until 14 June. A version of this article appears in the April issue of What’s On Stage magazine, which is out now in participating theatres. NOTE: After the April issue, the magazine will be available bi-monthly on subscription only as one of the many benefits of our Theatre Club. To guarantee you receive all future editions, click here to subscribe now!!