Friday, May 29, 2009

The Great Game: Invasions and Independence

While I am sure we all know how important it is for a country to have a flag, I am not quite sure all of us know the importance of a map. The map and the flag together were the two greatest assets a country could have in the Age of Exploration. In fact, I am quite convinced that it was the map making obsession that made the British Empire. Imaginary lines result in real events. The old European map makers knew this, any unsuspecting tourist who happens to walk into Stanford's or wanders into Cecil Court will find this out pretty quickly, the Royal Geographic Society has always known this. Without a map, there is no nation, no Empire. This is why these Fellows trampled across continents, recruited natives when the going got tough, and surveyed every inch of land they could possibly get to. This is why maps tend to occupy a large space in the British imagination, and the children of the world are subject to mugging names of numerous imaginary lines which mean nothing.

This very British idea that maps define everything is the central theme of Durand Line, Play 2 of the Great Game (Part 1) series that's currently playing at the Tricycle Theatre. In Durand Line, Sir Mortimer Durand the then Foreign Secretary of British India is sent to negotiate with Emir of Afghanistan, Abdur Rahman Khan over the demarcation of boundaries between Afghanistan and the Russian possessions in view of keeping the Russians as far away from India as possible. Sir Durand is your quintessential colonial British civil servant with some very brilliant lines, played almost to perfection (slightly overdone, I felt) by Michael Cochrane trying to convince the Emir to sign on the dotted line in return for improved weaponry and a monopoly on the opium trade. The Emir, played convincingly by Paul Bhattacharjee, comes across as witty, indolent (at one point, Sir Durand refers to "the perfumed indolence of the Eastern court" which the Emir doesn't let go that easily) and remarkably perceptive about the far reaching consequences of drawing lines on a piece of paper. In a particularly memorable exchange, the Emir takes the map of the United Kingdom that Sir Durand had drawn up and draws a line across the middle of Scotland, erases the Highlands and calls the upper half of it Durandistan. He signs finally as he must, stuck between the British and the Russians, there isn't much of a choice. The point is made but both Sir Durand and the Emir of the play are caricatures, a bit over the top, taken to extremes to balance the tilt and therefore, the most memorable character in this play happens to be that of a young British engineer brought in by Sir Durand to explain to the Emir how he would be able to modernize his weaponry.

Paul Bhattacharjee plays an Oxford professor of Afghan history in Campaign (Play 3), and this time, he is so comfortable in the role that it is like he is playing himself which is not surprising considering this is set in 2009. Part 1 of the Great Game covers the period from 1842 – 1930 but given that the audience might not be familiar with the history of Afghanistan, Campaign is a rather sneaky way of providing context and history for the play that comes after this. The Professor, originally from Pakistan, is invited to a Cabinet Minister's office where the Minister's Private Secretary (an Oxford man himself) attempts to test him on his history. The Professor for the longest time is puzzled as to why he is there but indulges the arrogant Secretary all the same. The overarching theme of Part 1 is the futility of playing with a country that one does not know the first thing about and while the other plays use the weight of history to make the point, Campaign does the same very effectively in an absurd and light-hearted manner. This is possibly the only play in Part 1 (and I suspect, in the whole series) that is comic without being depressing but that is only because the campaign that the Secretary is suggesting is too absurd to be taken seriously. But this surely isn't the first absurd idea to be implemented as a real strategy, and it will be far more depressing in a few years when we begin to see the real consequences of this campaign to bring about secular, liberal democracy in Afghanistan.

The last play of Part 1 Now is the Time is set on the day in 1929 that Shah Amanullah Khan left on his lifelong exile with his wife and father-in-law. Amanullah Khan fashioned himself as the Ataturk of Afghanistan and introduced social reforms that would be considered sacrilege in his country in the current day. The reforms made him unpopular and he was forced by the tribal chiefs to abdicate the throne and leave the country along with his mentor and father-in-law Mahmud Tarzi and his wife Soraya Tarzi. Their Rolls Royce gets stuck in the snow en route to the Russian border and the British drivers goes to get help while the three passengers are left to discuss their state of affairs. Of the four plays in Part 1, this one for me was the least effective – it tries to do all the right things and make the right points, brings out Amanullah's desperation and helplessness, and the problem with introducing groundbreaking reforms in a country perhaps not quite ready for it but it seemed to fall into the very trap that these plays warn us about – that of not understanding the region and its people. I don't mean the fake accents; one can easily overlook that but the portrayal of the characters and their interactions were more in tune with what Western spectators would expect them to behave rather than the how real people are. To be fair though, all the plays were guilty of this caricaturing (which led Bill to remark that it wasn't surprising that all the lines he thought were most convincing / effective were all spoken by the British characters) but as this play has all its main protagonists as Afghan, it was more noticeable.

Last but not least, Play 1: Bugles at the Gates of Jalalabad. Regular readers of this blog know that Peter Hopkirk is a recurring theme in this space. I take my childhood obsessions a little too seriously sometimes and this happens to be one of them. If any of you reading this who has not read the Great Game, I suggest you go buy it right now. Anyway, one of the vivid images that I have of the book is from 1842 - that of Dr William Brydon, the sole survivor of the British retreat from Kabul, at the gates of Jalalabad proclaiming "I am the army". This play is about four British soldiers at the ramparts waiting with their bugles to see if there would be more survivors. There is no hope and their conversation is supported by excerpts from the diary of Lady Sale who remained behind in Kabul as a hostage. The soldiers do encounter an unexpected visitor, the one misstep in this play in my opinion. Regardless, Bugles captures everything there is to be said about the situation in Afghanistan, 1842 or 2009, imperialism, ignorance, wars, religion, and the futility of it all. It is a difficult choice, but this play is my favorite of the four in Part 1.

The Great Game is playing at the Tricycle Theatre until June 14th. It is trilogy with each part consisting of four plays and you can either see it all together in a marathon session in the weekends or take it one at a time on weekdays like I am doing. If you have even a passing interest in history or political theatre, I suggest you go get your tickets now. It's a small, intimate theatre and the seats get filled up pretty quickly.