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Lolita Chakrabarti On … Playing The Great Game

Lolita Chakrabarti is an actress and writer who was recently seen in Free Outgoing at the Royal Court and John Gabriel Borkman at the Donmar. Other stage credits include Robert Lepage's National Theatre production of A Midsummer Night's Dream and Grimm Tales at the Young Vic. She is currently appearing in The Great Game: Afghanistan, a season of plays at the Tricycle Theatre described by artistic director Nicolas Kent recently as “the most comprehensive over-view of Afghanistan’s history, culture and politics ever attempted in Britain”.

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The Great Game is a season of 12 short plays covering nearly 200 years of the history of Afghanistan. It takes snapshots of different moments that will go some way to explaining the situation today. It’s a complicated system but at weekends you can see the whole thing, interspersed with lunch and dinner breaks, or on a Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, you can see an individual section of four plays.

There are 15 actors, three directors and 12 writers, so it’s a massive undertaking. A normal play is two or three hours long, but in each of these plays you have to create a whole world in just half an hour - and the drama is quite intensive. There are 12 separate plays. How they’ve organised it I don’t know - the directors share the actors, and we’re all in several plays, a logistical nightmare! I'm only in three so I've got off quite lightly, but some of the other performers are in seven or eight plays.

We did the trilogy for the first time last weekend, and nobody could quite believe that we got we got through it! We got a wonderful response - I think the audience felt like they'd really achieved something as well.

We've read about Afghanistan for so many years now. We hear the strategies, how many troops are going in and buzz words like 'Taliban', 'Mujahadeen', 'Al Qaeda'. But speaking for myself, I’ve never understood the scale of involvement in Afghanistan, I've always thought 'why are we there?'. But in fact the British involvement in Afghanistan goes back hundreds of years - I had no idea. The Great Game was a term used for the strategic rivalry and conflict between the British Empire and the Russian Empire for supremacy in central Asia and this season gives an historical explanation for what is happening now. It shows that a lot of different cultures - the Russians, Indians, British, Americans - have been continually involved, and that’s why we're there now. The people of Afghanistan sound unbelievable, so resilient to 30 years of war, the constant battle for their territory and the changes effected by the Taliban. It’s a fascinating subject.

Theatre is the right medium in which to explore this subject matter, because otherwise it would be like a history text book. I think what's essential about this project is that it shows you the people behind the history. We have the historical figures such as King Amanullah, but to see him as an ordinary man is vital. We all respond to people and human dilemmas, don't we? In one of the plays I'm in, by Abi Morgan, I play a woman whose husband was killed by the Taliban. She's a teacher and is intent on getting girls back to school and I find her determination in the face of her suffering very moving; it's a beautifully written piece.

A benefit of The Great Game has definitely been the opportunity to work with such a range of writers. As a writer myself, I find it very interesting watching the creative process from both sides. I don't normally write and act simultaneously, though at the moment I'm working on a project with Slung Low which will premiere at the Almeida Summer festival. It's been a bit of a challenge as I've got to use different heads, which I'm not good at having at the same time. Slung Low are a brilliant company, very out the box. I can't say too much about the project at this stage, but it will be an exciting evening.

- Lolita Chakrabarti was speaking to Theo Bosanquet  

The Great Game: Afghanistan opens at Kilburn's Tricycle theatre on Friday (24 April, previews from 17 April) where it continues until 14 June 2009. It includes plays by Richard Bean, David Edgar, Abi Morgan, David Greig and Simon Stephens and is directed by Nicolas Kent and Indhu Rubasingham, assisted by Rachel Grunwald. Slung Low's Last Seen premieres at the Almeida theatre from 8 to 12 July.


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