On the wall in Nicolas Kent’s office in the Tricycle Theatre hangs one of Ralph Steadman’s unmistakable, spiky drawings. It is of a man holding a ball and underneath Steadman has scrawled: “Never Forget Why You’re Holding the Ball.” It hangs there, Kent says, to keep that advice at the forefront of his mind.
The “ball” in this case is political theatre and the fact that Kent, as artistic director of the Tricycle, has carried on gripping it has put this modest theatre in north London on the map. In recent years, the Tricycle has become a driving force in political theatre with a series of verbatim dramas that reconstructed real inquiries and brought a new vigour and rigour to the role of theatre in public life.
But the Tricycle’s next move is in a different direction. The Great Game: Afghanistan is one of the theatre’s most ambitious projects to date: a season of 15, brand-new short plays about Afghanistan. All commissioned by the Tricycle, they will be mounted alongside films, talks and exhibitions. Audiences can watch 12 of the plays in one day, and so immerse themselves in the country’s history. Kent, who is unashamedly passionate about the role theatre can play in informing audiences, hopes The Great Game will help to explain the significance of Afghanistan on the world stage.
“It does affect us,” he says. “It affects us because of the terrorism threat. And because 90 per cent of narcotics in the world come from Afghanistan. So from a world perspective, it’s in everyone’s interest to have a peaceful Afghanistan.”
On the day we meet, Afghanistan is in the news because the number of British soldiers killed there has risen to 150. It was hearing grave bulletins such as this that set Kent on the path to The Great Game last year. He realised that he knew little about the background.
“I knew the phrase ‘The Great Game’ [referring to the 19th-century struggle over central Asia between the British empire and the Russian empire] and that was about it. And I thought we should do something. Get the debates open.”
Debate, however, is the key. Kent is adamant that the Afghanistan festival will not back one particular course of action. In fact, he has changed his own opinion while working on the project: he started by thinking the British troops should be withdrawn and now thinks the opposite.
“I’ve changed my impression completely having been to Kabul and talked to so many people. This is not something that can be walked away from ... What we are doing at the moment isn’t working, and therefore there has to be, I think, constructive dialogue with the Taliban and more empowerment of people in Afghanistan.
“But the programme is being edited by someone who is absolutely convinced that we should not be there and that the troops should be out instantly. There have been interesting battles. That’s good. I love that. In all the political work we have done at the Tricycle there have been two sides and we’ve tried to be as objective as possible.”
Kent has sought objectivity this time, however, not through documentary detail but through a range of voices and perspectives. The playwrights on board extend from the very experienced – David Edgar, Stephen Jeffreys, David Greig – to newcomer Joy Wilkinson.
They are, noticeably, not Afghan names. Kent says that, because of the country’s chequered history, there is not a body of playwrights he could commission. The theatre co-commissioned several new Afghan films, and the novelist Siba Shakib, who works in Afghanistan, will deliver monologues between the plays.
But while the epic approach seems apt for the weight of history, might not such a large collection of writers feel rather bitty? “I think people will be surprised by how cohesive it is,” replies Kent. “You’re making a chronological journey. You start in 1842 and you’re taking the big moments of Afghan history, so it’s very near to a Shakespeare history play in shape. In a Shakespeare history play if you look at the diversity of what you get – high comedy, battle scenes, soliloquies, love scenes – that sort of variety is in this collection of plays.”
The director Indhu Rubasingham, who is working with Kent on the festival and directing many of the plays, adds that each playwright will engage the audience in a distinctive way: “They bring their own styles and concerns: that’s part of the power of it. The plays are like signatures from each of the playwrights. So you’re not only getting different perspectives, you’re getting different theatrical experiences. That’s what excites me about this project: it’s as pertinent as it can be and as political as it can be. But it’s also a theatrical event.”
However, multiple writers produce multiple deadlines – and multiple possibilities for missing them. “I’ve had completely sleepless nights,” confesses Kent. “Not recently, but last October. The writers had to deliver these plays by the end of November, and I suddenly thought, ‘I’ve commissioned something which might last between nine and 12 hours, I’ve made the time to do it, I’m starting to publicise it – and I don’t have any plays at all. I normally wouldn’t even risk that on one play!”
Rubasingham, who examined the scripts as they came in, recalls, smiling, that the writers were all anxious about how good the other scripts were. She has been amazed by the quality of the material: “I thought, foolishly, before we started this, ‘Ah, half-hour plays, they’ll be a doddle.’ But they don’t feel like half-hour plays. They are so intense: they deal with so much material and so much emotional subtext. You still have to get the atmosphere, the tone, the world and the characters.”
But, however good the plays, can they achieve anything that a documentary film cannot? Kent thinks so. A stage play, repeated every night for weeks or months, can keep an issue alive and in the public eye long after the pressure of events has pushed it out of the headlines (the inquiry-based plays did just that). Kent adds that live drama can compel audiences to engage both head and heart actively with an issue.
“You can’t switch it off. We live in a 15-minute culture, which discards newspapers or switches off television or makes a pot of tea. In the theatre you’re forced to engage – there is an enormous concentration and you can take in a whole issue.
“And,” he says, “you do it communally. You watch other people laugh, cry, get angry – and you can feel it. You just don’t get that on television ... I think it’s a role of theatre to make us focus more as citizens together.”
Perhaps, then, it is not just holding the ball, but passing it, that matters.
‘The Great Game’ is at the Tricycle Theatre April 17-June 14; www.tricycle.co.uk