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  • Staging the Catastrophe: The Tricycle Theatre's The Great Game: Afghanistan and Its Diplomatic Journey from London to the Pentagon, 2010-11
  • Nicholas J. Cull

A few moments into the first play in the epic, three-part cycle The Great Game: Afghanistan, a prim European woman in the costume of the mid-nineteenth century addresses the audience. She is an eyewitness to the disastrous First Anglo-Afghan War of 1839-42, but speaks in terms relevant to our own times: "It is easy to argue on the wisdom or folly of conduct after the catastrophe has taken place" (17) (Fig. 1). What follows is a remarkable theatrical experience: an eight-hour exploration of a century and a half of folly in the interaction between Afghanistan and the rest of the world, told through twelve short plays and additional monologues. 1 In its essence, the play is a tragic epic that unfolds as part collective ritual—an Oberammergau for the CNN generation—and part crash-course in the complexities of a land whose past has been little known by those eager to shape its future.

The work is the creation of Nicolas Kent (working with co-director Indu Rubasingham) of London's Tricycle Theatre. This provenance is not surprising. In the third of a century since 1975, when Kent became that theatre's artistic director, he has established a track record for innovative drama engaging the pressing issues of the age, from Northern Ireland and apartheid South Africa to the War on Terror. What was remarkable about this play was its trajectory following its London premiere in 2009. In the fall of 2010 and winter of 2011, Kent brought the play on tour to the United States. Despite many elements of the play plainly criticizing British and US foreign policy, the British government assisted in this effort through its cultural-relations arm, the British Council, while the British embassy intervened to ensure that the play was seen by the policymakers in the Department of Defense. An unprecedented case of theatre in the service of diplomacy emerged.


During the twentieth century, national governments awoke to a problem: namely, the cherished mechanisms of traditional diplomacy, with its emphasis on discreet contact between one nation's trusted government professionals and another's, no longer fitted a world in which the people had a direct influence on foreign policy. Diplomacy changed. Institutions sprang up to carry the necessary messages: international radio stations; embassy press offices; publications aimed at foreign readers; international exchanges. In time, the United States dubbed such activity "public diplomacy" (Cull 2009). One sub-branch of public diplomacy deployed the tools of culture to engage their audience. Hence scholars and practitioners came to speak of a distinct practice of "cultural diplomacy" within or some preferred parellel to public diplomacy, and governments established agencies to conduct the work, such as Britain's British Council (founded in 1934) and Germany's Goethe Institut (founded in 1951) (Arndt).

Given the historic role of theatre in helping nations understand who they are in the first place, it was only to be expected that the dramatic arts would be pressed into the service of cultural diplomacy. [End Page 125] Theatre operates within cultural diplomacy in four main ways, each with a varying expectation of interactivity with the target public.

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Fig. 1.

"It is easy to argue on the wisdom or folly of conduct after the catastrophe has taken place." Jemma Redgrave in Bugles at the Gates of Jalalabad, part of The Great Game: Afghanistan. (Photo: John Haynes.)

1. Theatre Diplomacy as Prestige Gift

As every anthropologist knows, when groups of people seek to build reciprocal relationships, they typically begin with a gift. Notable diplomatic gifts have ranged from France's gift of the Statue of Liberty to the United States to China's presentation of innumerable pandas. In the case of theatre, the donor country takes an art form that is acknowledged to be the best that the country has to offer and makes it available to a foreign public. Examples of this are legion. This was how the British Council's theatrical diplomacy began, with gambits like the 1938...