How The Great Game emptied the Pentagon

Wednesday, March 2nd, 2011 by Tricycle

Featured in The Guardian (2 March 2011), read Nicolas Kent’s diary of the Pentagon performances.

Three years’ ago as yet another script about the war in Iraq crossed my desk I became very aware that the story had moved on, but that the arts and, to some extent the media, had not. Afghanistan was going to be the challenge for Western foreign policy for the next decade, yet in early 2008 there was not much reporting of it, and no artistic response to the war except for The Kite Runner. I knew little about Afghanistan, but was determined to find out more. It soon became evident to me that if we were to do anything theatrically meaningful about foreign involvement in Afghanistan since the British invasion 170 years ago it would take more than one play and more than one evening.

After talking to a number of playwrights a plan evolved. The project became a day-long immersion, twelve half hour plays interspersed with some verbatim interviews from politicians, journalists and soldiers, taking the audience on a journey from the first Anglo-Afghan wars to Independence; from the Russian invasion to the CIA arming of the Mujahideen; from the coming of the Taliban to Operation Enduring Freedom, the reconstruction, aid-workers and the present situation in Helmand. Nine month’s later, the dozen writers had all delivered, I had spent a hectic week in Kabul, my co-director, Indhu Rubasingham, and I had cast the plays, Pamela Howard had designed the sets and the 115 costumes, and after six weeks rehearsals we had opened The Great Game at the Tricycle Theatre in London.

A year later we revived the production in London before taking it on a US national tour. In July before leaving for America Sir David Richards, then Head of the British Army, hosted a day-long performance for the British military, Whitehall policy-makers, and soldiers about to deploy to Afghanistan.

During day he said from the Tricycle stage: “I can tell you that the Ministry of Defence as a whole, and certainly the armed forces desperately want to understand the country well, and this series of plays – if I had seen it before I had deployed [to Afghanistan] myself in 2005 for the first time – would have made me a much better Commander of the ISAF Forces.”

He was very enthused about our going to America, and told me he would do his best to ensure that people from the Pentagon came to see it. We opened in Washington in September, four days after the anniversary of 9/11, and the production was warmly welcomed by audiences, but our fortnight’s run was, despite Sir David’s efforts, somewhat ignored by the Pentagon and Capitol Hill until a few days before its end when a Congresswoman was asked by General Petraeus to send him a tape of the plays in Kabul. All of us were disappointed that it was not reaching the key decision-makers in DC that it had in London.

However on the last Saturday performance General “Mick” Nicholson came to see it on the orders of an Amazonian blonde Canadian QC, who lives in Lashkegar, and runs an opinion polling company in Afghanistan (she, in turn, had been brought to see it earlier in the week by the Sunday Times’ correspondent Christina Lamb). General Nicholson was incredibly enthusiastic about the plays, and asked to be taken round to meet the cast. He was about to be posted to Kabul as head of operations for Petraeus, but told us that he thought it vital that more people from the Pentagon saw the plays. He had already served in Afghanistan, but had found the plays both moving and informative, and wanted more of his colleagues and opinion-formers to experience them too.

As a result, three weeks later at 7.15am on a chilly October morning I found myself standing outside the Metro entrance to the Pentagon waiting for a military escort to take me to a meeting to discuss a special of performance The Great Game hosted by the Pentagon. The original idea was to re-stage the plays in the Pentagon theatre – yes, it has a theatre, not to mention a drugstore, supermarket, abranch of Blockbuster videos, and two shoe-shine boys in its 17 miles of corridors! Sadly the theatre was too small and in the sub-basement. It would have been impossible to get our set down the stairs, it had taken me twenty minutes to penetrate security, and the idea of getting the guns and explosives necessary for the production through those doors seemed a challenge too far.

The Shakespeare Theatre in downtown Washington came to our rescue, and offered to host the plays for two days in February. The Pentagon were adamant that though they wanted the production they could not use taxpayer’s money to fund it. The next few weeks were spent frantically raising money to make this dream become a reality. Through the Pentagon Boeing, Lockheed Martin and even the producer of the musical Hairspray were all approached, but to no avail. Finally Bob Woodruff, the US reporter who was injured in Afghanistan, came to our aid with a generous grant from his foundation which is dedicated to rehabilitating and re-integrating soldiers returning from war – and the British Council very kindly helped with most of the rest.

So, at the end of January I found myself back in the rehearsals with 14 actors re-learning the lines, and going through the moves. Before we even got on the plane there were a number of obstacles to overcome. A fortnight before rehearsals began our wonderful lighting designer and colleague, David Taylor, had been found dead in tragic circumstances in Taipei. His computers were impounded by the Taiwanese police, and recreating his lighting without his computer programme was going to be a huge task; especially as we only had one day on stage before the performances. Added to that, with only 24 hours left before we flew out, the work permit for one of our actors, who was born in Baghdad, was still unaccountably being withheld – in the event we spent the last day in the rehearsal room rehearsing his under-study, whilst the Pentagon and the British Embassy tried to sort it out. Apparently, we later found out, he had a similar name to a newly suspected terrorist.

On arrival at Dulles airport we were amazed to be greeted by an immigration official, who had seen the plays and befriended the company on our last visit – he whisked us through the “U.S. citizens only” line in a matter of minutes, and within a couple of hours of landing the whole company were having dinner in Downtown Washington.

The next two days were spent in a blur of rehearsals. The set was loaded in, the lighting and sound re-created, and the US stage management team, a mixture of staff from the Public Theater in New York and the Shakespeare Theatre here in DC, could not have been more welcoming and dedicated. Backstage there was a palpable feeling of excitement in the air. In one of the rehearsal breaks I was surprised to see a striking tall blond woman in a full length mink coat, looking every inch as though she had just left the set of Dynasty, leading a delegation of uniformed officers through the foyer – she greeted me warmly ,and it turned out to be Navy Captain Roxie Merritt. Until now she had been just one of the fifteen voices on the weekly Pentagon conference calls we had all had arranging the logistics for these performances.. It was good to put a face to the voice, but surprising to learn that in less than 48 hours she was off to get married to a merchant banker on a Jamaican beach with a Rastafarian officiating.

Rehearsals finished in frantic rush just before midnight on Wednesday, and by 9.30a.m. on Thursday the actors were back in the dressing-rooms, adrenalin pumping and ready to go. I went into the foyer to watch the audience arriving: lots of uniforms, lots of braid, quite a few in camouflage fatigues, suited Pentagon staffers and people from USAid, as well as various policy groups. I had been told 1200 would be coming from the Pentagon during the two days, but the Egypt crisis meant there were a few empty seats for the morning performance,but by the evening they were filled.

Listening to the audience receiving these plays was completely different, and I felt the actors sense it immediately. There was an extraordinary engagement and thirst for information – the audience were hanging on to every word. Resonances from the first play, about Anglo-Afghan war of 1842 – the worst defeat ever in the history of the British army, from a later play about the experience of Soviet invaders in 1980s, or from the last play about a British Sergeant coming back from Helmand and his inability to re-adjust to family life, hit home with this audience in a qualitative way we had never experienced before. I understood this reaction more clearly later when a Marine Colonel sought me out to thank me, and to tell me what a healing experience the whole day had been for the six Marine Captains he had brought with him. They had all served in Afghanistan or Iraq, all had had trouble re-integrating on their return, and now all six were divorced from their wives.

My nervousness started to subside as the morning progressed. When the audience streamed out for the lunch break the conversations were all about Afghanistan. Doug Wilson, the Pentagon’s Assistant secretary for Public Affairs, who had been their driving force making these performances happen, came over and said “You hit the ball right of the park – this is absolutely wonderful”.

In the evening break, before the last part, there was a crowded press conference, and I was amazed to see such press interest. Whilst listening to the questions to Douglas Wilson it suddenly came thoroughly home to me how unprecedented these performances were. The Pentagon had never before sponsored a theatre performance. I know that Douglas had faced doubts within the department that the plays would be anti-war, and would deliver a counter-productive, negative message to a military audience, but he had always felt it was a “no-brainer”, and said in answer to another question: “There is an assumption that the arts and our men and women in uniform are from different planets. It’s not the case. The arts can provide a means to discuss and explore and in this case learn about the history and culture of a very complicated country. It is tremendous food for thought.”

After the press conference came the V.I.P reception, but on our way down there Indhu Rubasingham, my co-director, and I are ambushed by reporters – she by a Japanese journalist, and me by Icelandic television – somehow I could not help feeling that a British theatre director in Washington discussing the Afghan war might seem slightly incongruous to viewers in Reykjavik.

The reception was packed with Washington movers and shakers as well as at least 3 Generals and a couple of Admirals. General Busby welcomed the audience on behalf of Admiral Mullen Chief of the General Staff, and stressed the importance of the day in focussing in a sustained way on the conflict in Afghanistan especially together with their British Army and ISAF partners. I noticed that all the speakers when talking about the conflict had almost always replaced the word “winning” with “transitioning out”.

The theatre was full as we took our seats for the evening part of the trilogy, and I was greeted warmly by Masood Khalili, Afghanistan’s ambassador to Madrid, who had flown in especially for the performance. The story of his surviving the Al Qaeda 9/9 assassination of Afghanistan’s national hero Ahmed Masoud was about to be told as the houselights went down, and the actor playing him was particularly nervous – although from the response afterwards, and huge hug he received, he should not have worried.

Some of the audience had joined for the afternoon or evening, not wishing to leave America “undefended for day”, but most had been with us for over nine hours and yet, after the end of plays, well over 100 stayed in the foyer to share coffee and chocolate chip brownies with the actors. I think the actors might have preferred something stronger, but all of us were overwhelmed by the audience’s enthusiasm for the project – three marine Captains, just back from Afghanistan said “it was very irritating to see some empty seats during the morning, some Pentagon people could have used their time much better being here to see the plays”; an ex-CIA man said he could not believe so much history and culture could have been crammed into one day, one of senior staff members for the Senate Committee on Foreign Relation was literally jumping up and down with excitement. Lieutenant Colonel Luke Knittig, a veteran of two combat tours to Afghanistan former spokesman for Sir David Richards and now working for the US Army’s Chief of Staff General Pete Chiarelli, said the plays “were extraordinarily important, and represented an amazing convergence of game-changing knowledge interest and relationships”. Again and again people came over and introduced themselves saying what an important event this had been for them, and I literally lost count of the amount of time I was asked whether we had dvds available, or were there plans to televise the plays?

The next day should have been an anti-climax but wasn’t. Most of us had been together for the best part of a year, and there was some sadness that it was all coming to an end; especially as we felt that this last trilogy day could not surpass yesterday’s. The audience was very different though, and there seemed to be more servicemen, some diplomats, an ex-Deputy director of the CIA, as well as Michelle Flournoy tipped to follow Gates as the next US Secretary of Defense. Word had spread from the day before, and by the evening performance we had to open the gallery to pack everyone in – I even met a Navy Captain, who had been flying helicopter missions near Herat, who had come on the day before, and was now back to see the plays because he wanted his wife to share the experience.

The feedback from Thursday’s performances continued to come in Captain L.R. Vasquez emailed to say: “I was able to attend all three performances and was very impressed. It really should be required viewing for anyone headed to a tour of duty in Afghanistan, especially anyone who will be working closely with the Afghan people. I would have made it mandatory for everyone on my PRT to help put the conflict and the suffering of the Afghan people in perspective.” and I received a message from Charlene Austin the wife of the Commanding General in Iraq – General Lloyd Austin – saying she was “blown away by the plays” and asked “if it was possible to take them to military communities?”.

On stage between the afternoon and evening performances Rene Bardoff of Woodruff Foundation spoke about combat stress and the difficulties of soldiers re-integrating back into civilian life. In the last decade the US had sent over 1.9 million soldiers in a volunteer army into Iraq and Afghanistan, the Afghan war was the longest in America’s history, and the social cost was enormous and often forgotten. She begged people to focus on returning “warriors”, and she wound up her appeal by saying: just look at the people in this room – each one of you is sitting next to one of the smartest people in the world. This raised a warm laugh, but for the actors on stage it had a truth that provided an astonishing chemistry for that final performance.

In the verbatim section near the end when the actors were speaking the words of General Sir David Richards, Hilary Clinton and Taliban Commander Hafeez you could really hear a pin drop. I sensed every single word landing with this audience in a way I have never experienced before in the theatre, especially as the actor playing Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid said: “With the divisions, uncertainty and lack of clarity gripping the main decision-makers in Kabul, Washington and Europe it becomes even more urgent that before a pull out of troops begins there should be a political settlement with the Taliban. I met with several former Taliban leaders who told me they want international safeguards to establish an office in a third country, that is not Afghanistan or Pakistan, where they can negotiate directly with the Americans and the Kabul government.”

Twenty minutes later when the curtain fell the response was extraordinary. The applause was subdued but sustained, and as the actors came out for the curtain call every single audience member stood as one, in salute.

I went back stage and the actors were jubilant – they had given their best performance ever to the most responsive audience ever, and as we watched the set being torn down and thrown into the dumpster there was a sadness from us all, but a strong sense of “Mission accomplished”.