What sounded like a daunting proposition - an all-day epic of 12 short plays about the history of, and continuing political crisis in, Afghanistan - turns out to be one of the major highlights of the year, an utterly enthralling and informative experience with terrific new pieces by, among others, Stephen Jeffreys, David Edgar, David Greig, Abi Morgan, Ron Hutchinson, Richard Bean, Colin Teevan and Simon Stephens.
The surprise package is Abi Morgan’s The Night is Darkest Before the Dawn, the only rural play, and a brilliantly poised and characterised drama of choice between the education of girls and the ownership of the drug trade’s poppy fields that underpin what little prosperity the country possesses and were a bargaining chip in dealings with the British government in the late 19th century.
Backed up with tremendous programme notes, and given a bitter reality twist with two “verbatim” interjections by Richard Norton-Taylor in the last section, the show amounts to a panoramic survey of dealing, feuding, terrorism and cultural misunderstanding.
The plays are directed by Nicolas Kent and Indhu Rubasingham and beautifully designed by Pamela Howard, a magnificent achievement studded with fine performances by Jemima Rooper as both a “writer” imagining the brutal murder of the pro-communist president Najibullah, and a distraught Manchester housewife berating her squaddie husband for caring about atrocities in Helmand rather than Moss Side; Ramon Tikaram and Paul Battacharjee as a string of Afghan politicians and war lords; Jemma Redgrave as a Victorian lady diarist; Lolita Chakrabarti as a UN aid worker who has had her staff fed to the lions in the Kabul zoo; and Vincent Ebrahim as a granite Afghan diplomat and fearsome Russian army captain.
Edgar’s Black Tulips shows the Soviet military refining their reasons for joining “the great game” in a series of sharply written briefings in reverse chronological order, while Jeffreys’ Bugles at the Gates of Jalalalabad announces the “death trap for foreign armies” with a shocking act of panicky assault on a civilised local, and Hutchinson’s Durand’s Line mines rich comedy from political haggling over the Indian border in 1893.
The American playwright J T Rogers - whose superb play about Rwanda, The Overwhelming, was presented by Out of Joint - supplies an equally impressive low-down on how the Americans commandeered the muhajideen as their “ears” in the Pakistan war zone in the 1980s, and Ben Ockrent’s Honey compiles a clever build-up to the assassination of Massoud by the Taliban in 2001.
The show suggests there are hopes for progress under President Obama. We shall see. But don’t miss this dramatic, often poetic, intervention in what is clearly a necessary war. Parts 1, 2 and 3 play during the week, with all-day cycles – no more than eight hours’ theatre in all – on Saturdays and Sundays through 14 June.
- Michael Coveney