Nicolas Kent

Five days of politics, plays and policy-makers

Thursday, September 30th, 2010 by Nicolas Kent

The five days in Washington were incredibly eventful and exciting. On Tuesday I found myself speaking in a forum hosted by the American Institute of Peace together with Air Vice Marshal Michael Harwood ( the British Military attache), and an Afghan woman who makes TV programmes for Kabul. It was a lively audience and the whole session was televised by the Urdu service of Voice of America.

The surrounding programme for the Trilogy has been very enterprisingly programmed by the Shakespeare Theatre & the British Council. On Monday Greg Mortenson, author of Two Cups of Tea, gave a lecture to a packed house of 800 in the Harman Theatre (where we are playing), and on Friday there was a forum of young American foreign policymakers at the theatre before the performance.

Three special seminars on Sunday – one hosted by Christina Lamb (Sunday Times Washington Correspondent and author of Sewing Circles of Herat) – were very well attended, and led to lively discussions.

On Tuesday, actors Raad Rawi, Michael Cochrane and Sheena Bhattessa and I went to talk to a student class of foreign policy graduates run by Ambassador Schneider (Clinton’s ex-Ambassador to the Netherlands) at Georgetown University – Raad and Michael did half of Durand’s Line in the classroom, which was extraordinary and very well-received by the students. The questions they asked were very thoughtful and the afternoon was even more interesting because we were joined by an aid worker who had returned from Kandahar the week before.

We are all very moved by the interest and policy discussions that the plays have provoked. The British Council have published a wonderful book of essays, called Trust Me, I’m An Expert, to go alongside the production, which looks at the way culture can affect policy-making. This is available for download here.

As an antidote to all the politics, the whole cast did a 2-hour Segway tour of Washington which was huge fun. It was a blazing hot day and we all let off steam – the highlight was a race in front of the White House – there is a hilarious film of this which I hope will be posted on this blog before too long!

On Friday we all got an official tour of the White House and two of the actors got to pet the Obama dog, but sadly we were kept well away from the West Wing

The weekend performances started on a high as we had just had a message from a member of Congress that General Petraeus wanted a DVD of the plays – this was Fed-Exed from the Tricycle to me in Washington and then the British Embassy collected it and forwarded it on to Kabul. By Sunday’s performances things were getting even more interesting. At lunchtime in the special Afghan bookshop the Shakespeare Theatre have set up in the foyer, I met up with Andrew Eiva who was seeing the whole trilogy for the second time. He had run a notorious free-lance operation against the Soviets with some Afghan Jihadists. As we were talking, a man came up to us and asked if the character of Owens in the Lee Blessing play Wood For The Fire was a composite, because he was sure it was a portrayal of him as a younger man. He claimed he had negotiated the Stinger Arms deal with the Pakistanis. He then recognised Andrew Eiva, who he hadn’t seen for years, and it turned out that he was actually Michael Pillsbury who I had read about in the book Ghost Wars, and who had been a major player in the CIA arming of Mujaheddin.

That afternoon General Nicholson (Director, Pakistan/Afghanistan Coordination Cell, The Joint Staff, Washington, DC ) came to Part 2 and was very enthusiastic; he came round to meet the cast afterwards and was going to talk to Petraeus about it. After that I rushed off to a farewell supper with Christina Lamb and her family. That lunchtime she had kindly interviewed Ambassador Mark Sedwill (CMG MPhil) for us. His interview was going to replace that of a NATO spokesman, which was now out of date because he had been talking about last weekend’s Afghan elections. She gave me the interview, and as I write Tom McKay is learning it so that we can include it in Part 3 on Friday.

The final performance in Washington ended with a standing ovation and 4 hours later the set and costumes were on their way in a 54-foot truck to Minneapolis.The wonderful stage management and Bart had packed it up in record time. Next day we all flew off via Chicago, slightly relieved that this exciting, exhilarating leg of the tour was over, and hoping things would be a bit calmer in Minneapolis.

This morning I was very relieved to see the truck had arrived, and this evening the set is up and the sound and lights have been set. Tomorrow a dress rehearsal and then we open at 7.30 in Minneapolis – wish us luck!

Nick