Nicolas Kent is the Artistic Director of London's Tricycle Theatre and director (along with co-director Indhu Rubasingham) of THE GREAT GAME: AFGHANISTAN, which begins performances at The Public this Wednesday, December 1. We spoke with Nick about bringing this epic work to NYC, his visit to Afghanistan and what he hopes audiences will take away from seeing the show. (To view a short video featuring Kent, Oskar Eustis and show footage, click on the image on the right or here.)
Public Theater Blog: Tell us about The Tricycle Theatre.
Nick Kent: It’s 30 years old and in Kilburn, in NW London and in the most multicultural borough in Europe. So it has huge amounts of Irish people, African-Caribbean people, Asian people from Pakistan and India and a lot who emigrated from East Africa as well during the time of Idi Amin, and quite a large Jewish and Muslim population. I think there are something like 126 languages spoken in our borough. So we’ve always tried to reflect the cultural diversity of the area.
PTB: How did this project come about?
Kent: In 2008, April, I was very aware that the news cycle was forever about Iraq Iraq Iraq, and there’d been huge response in the media, and also in the arts to Iraq — in films, plays, books, art exhibitions and a huge amount of reporting — yet no one was writing about Afghanistan. And there’d been certainly very little news coverage in 2008. There was during operation Enduring Freedom but then after about 6 months after 9/11, there was nothing further about Afghanistan. And I sort of thought this was going to be the big story. It was going to be a much bigger conflict than Iraq, mainly because you’ve got Pakistan on its border with nuclear weapons. So at that time I thought we needed to do something about Afghanistan and I thought doing one play wasn’t really going to be answer, because this was a very complex history. Certainly Western involvement went back to 1842. This is a country that had been invaded time and time again, very successfully, but never been held. It seemed very easy to invade but impossible to hold. And so I thought this would be a very interesting project but people were dying in Afghanistan and we were committing a large amount of troops and the U.S an even larger amount of troops. It seemed to me to deal with this in a cursory way in one evening was not enough. I needed a commitment from an audience to see this all the way through. So I conceived the idea as a trilogy.
PTB: How did you choose the writers?
Kent: It was its own complicated process. Some came to mind straight away, because we already had connections with them. Some were less obvious and I had a dramaturg, Jack Bradley, who had worked at the National Theatre for the past 10 or 13 years, and was very brilliant and between him and I we sort of looked for all the writers that we could think of who might be good to contribute to this. Then we commissioned some less well known writers, together with the National Theatre — in case any of ours didn’t make the cut effectively. And one or two of those writers also got into the main project.
PTB: How did the U.S Tour come about?
Kent: We ran in London in 2009 for 10 weeks — it sold out, did incredibly well and got wonderful notices. And then we determined to bring it back a year later, because I wanted to take it to the USA, because it seemed to me that it’s a series of plays that has a lot to say to an American audience. Well we initially got a good response from UCLA, who were very interested in taking it. Ironically they’ve now cut their festival and we’re no longer gong there. But that started the ball rolling. And then we were talking to the Guthrie and they suggested Berkeley. And then obviously what I wanted more than anywhere else was Washington, because I felt it should be seen in Washington. So that fell into place and then later came NY.
PTB: You visited Kabul in preparation for THE GREAT GAME. What kinds of things impressed you about it and what was surprising?
Kent: Yes, I went for a week to Kabul. I would’ve liked to have gone for longer but I just couldn’t spare the time and also it’s incredibly expensive — because you have to have a fixer when you go. You can’t just go by yourself and that’s quite an expensive undertaking. I had a really good time going there and I learned a lot. I thought Kabul would be much more poverty stricken than it seemed to be. That surprised me. It surprised me what a lot of goodwill there was from the Afghans towards the NATO forces there and how people wanted us to stay. But that may have been just the Afghans that I met. And I suppose the beauty of the country. I did manage to get a little bit out of Kabul. But also I suppose the military presence is very much heavier than one even expected it to be. I suppose it was probably a little bit like the Green Zone in Baghdad.
PTB: Did you see much international presence in Kabul?
Kent: Yes. A lot. Particularly a rather good British project by Turquoise Mountain, which is getting the potteries in Istalif, outside Kabul, working again, and doing a lot of rather good conservation work. And I met with the directors from Oxfam and various aid agencies. But the problem with a lot of those aid agencies is much of the work they’re doing is in rural communities, and that you can’t get to see unless you can travel through the country. And it’s pretty unsafe at the moment. I mean the main thing one doesn’t realize is there are just no interconnections between the cities. There are hardly any of them. You’re driving on really difficult roads on really difficult terrain. There was never a railway infrastructure, because it just never happened. It would’ve been the key to the invader, to some extent, so it was against the national interest.
PTB: Has the project changed your own political views about the involvement?
Kent: Yes. Well, they change all the time. I started by thinking we shouldn’t be there. During the project and going to Afghanistan I felt we should be there and we weren’t doing it right. I now feel, still I feel on balance, we probably should be there. We created the mess and I have the feeling if we got out there would be the most appalling and bloody civil war — and bloodbath. But I also despair slightly of the corruption of the Karzai government and the inability to get the reconstruction underway. When people say reconstruction it’s a bit of a misnomer. It’s more construction than reconstruction. And also I think there is a real need for a regional settlement. I think Hillary Clinton understands that and I think Obama understands that. But I somehow think a lot of people don’t understand that. It seems to me Pakistan is an absolute key to what goes on in Afghanistan. And whilst Pakistan is playing a power game against India, Afghanistan will always be a pawn in that game.
PTB: What has the U.S. reception to the project been like?
Kent: We’ve had standing ovations every time we performed the trilogy, which has been very cheering and wonderful. And in Washington it was extraordinary because a lot of fairly important people attended— senior generals and military came, people from the CIA, well, who identified themselves — and a lot of foreign policy people, some congress people and all of that. I mean Petraeus sent a message asking for the DVDs of the show to be sent to Kabul. So word got around. And it was rather extraordinary for us, and very exciting.. So the debate continues and rages.
PTB: How do you feel the plays reflect your initial your initial idea to engage this huge history?
Kent: I think they do it wonderfully. Some playwrights I had to guide quite strongly as to what I wanted them to write about. But each one of them accepted the challenge in their own way. So the plays are stylistically very different. But they’re all exciting and good entertainment. And they’re all very dramatic. I suppose, ironically, the one period of history we have not covered is the period of stability from 1930 through to 1979. But that would be the most difficult to cover dramatically because there was very little drama… it’s the period I most regret not covering because in a way it’s the period in which Afghanistan was independent and most happy in its own skin.
PTB: What has been the biggest surprise in doing this project?
Kent: Well, I suppose that the Army in London requisitioned a performance. And the head of the British defense forces spent a whole day with us with various people he was training. And I suppose the interest from the Pentagon. The other thing I would like to say is that it’s been extraordinary to play this in America because the audiences have been so on the money and really listening to it, and it’s been very interesting to us because some of the plays that went down well in England have gone down less well here and some of the plays that went down not so well in England have gone down brilliantly here. And in each city it’s different. It’s been really exciting. And the cast and I are loving being here in the U.S. so it’s an honor to be allowed to bring this here and especially to where the center of power is effectively in the world. And a last thing I would like to say, that I hope this is very good theater and entertaining, somewhat funny and moving. People cry, they laugh and at the end they really come out having been somewhat drained — but not exhausted.