Designing The Great Game:
A Conversation with Pamela Howard
By Terry Stoller
Pamela Howard was the project designer
for the latest venture by artistic director Nicolas Kent at London's
Tricycle Theatre--a series of commissioned plays about Afghanistan,
spanning the mid-19th century to the present. The festival's title,
The Great Game, refers to the historic playing for power
in Central Asia by the British and the Russians. Kent and Indhu
Rubasingham, assisted by Rachel Grunwald, staged a dozen short
dramatic plays for a three-part program, which could be viewed
separately on weekday evenings or all in one day on "marathon"
weekends in spring 2009.
A cast of fifteen actors, featuring
Paul Bhattacharjee, Michael Cochrane, Jemma Redgrave, and Jemima
Rooper, played some ninety roles. In addition to the plays, the
Tricycle hosted art exhibits, discussions, and films. The sweeping,
fascinating play cycle takes a sharp look at the complex history
of Afghanistan--the imperialist aggression and intervention, the
violent internal struggles.
Part 1 (1842-1930), subtitled Invasions
and Independence, takes us back to the first Anglo-Afghan
war in Bugles at the Gates of Jalalabad by Stephen Jeffreys,
when thousands of British troops have just been massacred. Yet
the British wind up calling the shots in Ron Hutchinson's Durand's
Line, a battle of wills in the 1890s between British India's
Foreign Secretary and the Amir of Afghanistan over establishing
the country's borders. After a brief fast-forward to the 21st
century and contemporary strategy at the British Foreign Office
in Amit Gupta's Campaign--which harks back to the democratic
ideals of Afghanistan's King Amanullah--Part 1 concludes in 1929
outside Kabul, with the reformist King overthrown and literally
stuck in a snowdrift in Joy Wilkinson's Now Is the Time.
In Part 2 (1979-1996), Communism,
the Mujahideen and the Taliban, David Edgar's Black Tulips
chronicles the aspirations and tribulations of the Soviet army
during its occupation of Afghanistan. Blood and Gifts
by JT Rogers sheds light on some of the resistance: the Americans
are arming Mujahideen to fight the Soviets. Communist President
Najibullah stayed in power for a few years after the Soviets left
Afghanistan. But he is under house arrest in a U.N. compound in
David Greig's Miniskirts of Kabul, which "imagines" a
conversation with the ousted leader during his final days and
recounts his gruesome death in 1996 at the hands of the Taliban.
In a vivid conclusion to Part 2, the Taliban, who are in charge,
mete out a terrifying form of justice in The Lion of Kabul
by Colin Teevan.
Part 3 (1996-2009), Enduring
Freedom, opens with Ben Ockrent's Honey and the CIA
trying to get its weapons out of Afghanistan. Five years later,
the Taliban have made further incursions, al-Qaeda is strengthening,
and the Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud is assassinated,
two days before the bombing of the Twin Towers in New York City
(shown in a stunning coup de théâtre). It's 2002 in Abi Morgan's
The Night Is Darkest Before the Dawn, at a field of poppies
south of Kandahar. As the title suggests, there's a chance for
better times. The Taliban are gone, and an American from an aide
organization is in rural Afghanistan to fund a girls' school.
But there can be pitfalls when outsiders interfere in local matters,
and in Richard Bean's On the Side of the Angels, brokering
land rights in the tribal culture results in moral compromises
and a tragic end for British NGO workers. Finally, Simon Stephens'
Canopy of Stars comes full circle, with British troops
in Afghanistan--and one soldier's personal battle back home to
justify the continuing intervention in that country. Along with
the plays are short scenes by author Siba Shakib and verbatim
pieces by Guardian journalist Richard Norton-Taylor on
the resurgence of the Taliban.
None of the plays were written when
Pamela Howard signed on to the project and began to develop an
overall concept for the production. She created a backdrop for
the plays: a beautiful mural with figures from Afghanistan's history.
In the foreground is Malalai, the young woman who carried a "flag"
for the Afghan soldiers in the battle of Maiwand during the second
Anglo-Afghan war. Malalai comes to life in a duologue by Shakib.
Howard talks in the following interview about the genesis of that
mural and the challenges of designing a project of this magnitude
for the Tricycle, a 235-seat theatre.
Pamela Howard is a designer and director.
She has worked as a stage designer in the U.K., Europe and the
U.S. on more than 200 productions and is the author of What
Is Scenography? (Routledge). In 2008, she was awarded the
OBE for services to drama. The interview took place in New York
City in May 2009.
Terry Stoller: When Nicolas
Kent proposed this particular project, what did you think about
the challenge of so many plays? What drew you to the project?
Pamela Howard: Nick came
to visit me where I live, down in Sussex. Nick and I, in various
different ways, are both politically aware and probably committed
to trying to use our art to do something. And he said to me, "I'm
planning a big project about Afghanistan," and I said, "Oh, I
might be interested in that." And that was all that was really
said. He didn't say, "Oh, yes, I'd like you to do it." Then a
few weeks later, he came back and said, "Do you want to do it?
It's such a huge project, and I couldn't entrust this to somebody
young. I need someone terribly experienced because the plays will
not be written by the time you have to get something together.
And I need somebody who can make an overall concept of the whole
thing. And then you can have an associate designer, and you could
individually do whatever plays you wanted." That's when I thought
of bringing Miriam Nabarro in, because she'd had a lot of experience
working for NGO charities abroad.
TS: Isn't this rather
unusual, to design something before you have the play?
PH: It's a bit odd. But
I had a clear idea in the very beginning, which was about Afghanistan--death.
Nick showed me a piece in the newspaper about the painter Mashal,
who'd been painting this picture of 500 years of Afghanistan in
the bazaar at Herat. He was a famous fine-art painter, and he
had taken his inspiration from the early Persian miniatures, known
as the school of Behzad. But the Taliban came and forced him to
watch while they whitewashed it out. Nick said to me, "Do you
think we could try and stage that, and show the actual whitewashing
of the wall?" That was really how it started.
I did various versions of the mural. I
came across this character called Malalai, who could have been
me. I could have been the Afghani shepherd girl going out into
battle in 1880, with the flag: "Come on, get rid of the British!"
I loved the character of Malalai and always wanted her to be central.
I think Nick got worried about the amount of detail that was going
into the mural, and he thought it would be very distracting for
the action. Gradually I refined it more and more. Then he wanted
to somehow try and show the Twin Towers, but we didn't really
know how to do it. And suddenly I thought if the mural wall is
painted white, but you could still see the picture underneath,
you could project the Twin Towers.
In my book, What Is Scenography?,
I've written a lot about space and how you use space in theatres,
and one of the things I wanted to do at the Tricycle was to use
every bit of the space, to clear the whole thing out. I thought
with all these plays, one of the things I need to do is clear
out the sides, clear out the back and really look at what space
is available. And as soon as I did that and measured up what the
back is, I saw that the mural could go all the way back. And I
think that was the beginning of the whole story of this. Because
as soon as we saw it could go back, I saw that something could
fall in from the sides that might look like the Twin Towers, but
I wanted it to turn into a poppy field. I wanted to associate
opium, poppies and death with the bombing of the Twin Towers and
death. So that one results in the other because the events were
connected--the killing of Ahmad Shah Massoud was two days before
9/11 and the bombing of the Twin Towers, then it goes to Afghanistan
and becomes a field of poppies.
I didn't know then that Abi Morgan's play
would come in and actually be the perfect play. I was just overall
thinking of the big images because at the time I had no idea of
the sequence of events. What I think is brilliant about The
Great Game is that Nick has managed to embroider the whole
thing into a sequence that works with the wall. Because all he
did was say to the writers, you've got 30 minutes to the second,
no longer, no shorter, and this is the period I want you to do--but
the writers could come up with anything. And the fact that they
appear to be coherent …
TS: And they echo one
another and build the story.
PH: Absolutely. And they
link. I have to give Nick total, one hundred percent credit for
that because he has done the most brilliant job. And if you didn't
know how serendipity it all was, you'd think it was all planned.
I'm full of admiration for the way that Nick, with Jack Bradley,
the literary adviser, has managed to manufacture something. But
that was the idea always--I thought if I think of Afghanistan
overall, I could think of tragedy, but I could think of beauty
and the seduction of beauty, and poppies and opium and death.
It's like a seduction, isn't it? That's part of its tragedy. So
in Abi Morgan's The Night Is Darkest Before the Dawn,
when the American says you've got to grow wheat, the Afghanis
just laugh at him. They think, "No, it's worth too much money,
the poppies. We're not going to grow wheat. Are you joking?" It's
too big an industry, and also, of course, the West is buying into
TS: Back to the mural:
Siba Shakib wrote a piece about Malalai. Did you ask her to do
I didn't ask her to do that. I sent Siba a picture of the mural,
and then she wrote the monologue about Malalai. I was communicating
with Siba and asking her about historic figures, and she told
me about the Queen of Herat. But what happened was when Siba wrote
the Malalai story, I'd already done the mural painting with Malalai,
and then we ran out of money and we couldn't do the costume that
I had painted, which is like a piece of armor, with a skirt and
trousers. Then I remembered that at home, I had a real Afghan
coat, which is the green coat that the actress wears. Miriam said,
why don't we put her in that green coat and repaint the mural
wall to match your coat, which is what we did. Then we had to
borrow something from the National Theatre for the Queen of Herat
and paint her to match the thing that we borrowed.
TS: When the production
opens, the artist is finishing up the mural, and you're to believe
there's other stuff to finish.
PH: That's because I had
to try and not make too much detail above and behind the actors.
And I think that worked, particularly because lighting designer
James Farncombe manages to light it in such a way that it just
becomes a landscape behind them. In the upper right corner is
the mosque that was built by the Queen of Herat that she refers
to, the blue mosque. And in the beginning, you see the artist
up the ladder, and he's finishing the drawing. From the top left
is Tamerlane, then the Queen of Herat, then Genghis Khan, then
Shah Durrani. I tried to make them look as if they were done in
the style of the Persian miniatures.
TS: The mural wall [approx.
16 1/2 ft. wide by 14 ft. high] is so striking when you walk into
the theatre. Then when it starts getting whitewashed, that really
has a visceral effect.
PH: People are shocked
by it. One of the things I wanted to say--and it's a theme I've
used quite a lot in different productions, because I direct almost
as much now as I design--is about how frightened people are of
art and of artists. It's about censorship, burning books. But
particularly artists become targets, and you see it in the whole
Palestinian question that's going on. In any situation where you
have repression of any sort, sometimes art becomes the spokesperson
for that particular situation because you can say things in visual
arts that you can't say either in writing or in plays. That becomes
part of the responsibility of an artist in a political climate.
When we spoke at the Tricycle about the open wing space, you talked
about your concept of "burkas over furniture." Could you tell
me more about that?
PH: From the beginning,
when I knew there were going to be twelve plays--though I'm a
visual artist, I'm very practical--I thought, "How are you going
to bring all this stuff on and off?" When you look at pictures
of Afghanistan, you often see furniture being thrown out of houses
where it's been bombed. And you think, this is somebody's chair
that they've sat on. And there's a sense of things being thrown
out and waiting to be reused. So I said to Nick, "What if the
furniture is always on either side?" (At that time, we thought
the furniture for all three parts would be there, but it turned
out to be not practical. That's fine. In fact, it's much better.)
And then I thought, "It's going to be too distracting if we're
looking at all these bits and anticipating how they might be used."
I said, "What if the furniture is in burkas?" I'd been looking
at camouflage. So I imagined that there would be a stage and that
we would build up the stage a little bit; if we could use something
from underneath, something from on top, something from the sides,
and something from the back, we'd be using every bit of the space.
And I imagined a hard stage, which would be the acting area--and
an evocation of camouflage, sand, and I thought we might make
hessian "burkas," furniture in burkas at the sides, just like
the women are in, waiting.
TS: The Rolls-Royce at
the end of Part 1 was very impressive. With that you see the use
of transformative furniture: the couch from Amit Gupta's Campaign,
set in the Foreign Office, becomes the backseat of the Rolls in
the play that follows, Joy Wilkinson's Now Is the Time
about the exile of Afghanistan's King Amanullah in 1929.
PH: I loved that play
that Joy Wilkinson wrote. And I got completely carried away by
Rolls-Royces. I researched Rolls-Royces, and I also went to the
Foreign Office and had a look around. And I walked into one office,
and I saw this red Chesterfield sofa, and I thought, "That looks
like the back seat of the Rolls-Royce." And that's what gave me
TS: The sets had to be
done very quickly. How much time did you have to develop that?
PH: Not a lot. I think
I got the play in the end of January; we started rehearsing in
February. Although Joy had told me she wanted to set it all in
a Rolls-Royce. I'd been looking at Rolls-Royces, and I was thinking
snow drifts; the thing is stuck in a snow drift. Originally I
thought the whole of the front of the Rolls-Royce might be in
a trap, and they'd open the trap and it would be snow. I made
several models of it, and I realized actually we only need a wheel
in the trap, so we cut all the rest--and we need the thing for
the driver. Then I went to the Foreign Office and I saw the sofa,
and I thought if the guy in the Foreign Office in Campaign
has a red leather chair, we could turn that around, and that could
be the driver's seat.
TS: I had never seen a
sandbag bunker before, which is used in the last play, Canopy
of Stars by Simon Stephens.
PH: I have a neighbor
whose wife, my friend Susan Harper, was at art school with me
when we were both 16. She's a decorative artist, and she helped
in the construction of the mural; she drew out the border for
me. Her husband is very good at making miniature things. He comes
from a military family, and he knew about sandbags. So I gave
him little bits of bandage and little bits of modeling clay, and
he made all these little model sandbags for me. I got all the
TS: During the blackout
of Canopy of Stars, the poppies disappear for the final
PH: They are actually
there, but they're not lit. I always thought what was good about
the way Nick constructed the plays was that The Great Game
didn't end on a big note, and it ended with the real tragedy of
Afghanistan: that you have this war, but actually it's a young
man and a young woman and they've got nothing to say to each other.
That's the terrible destruction of war--what happens between two
people. I always thought from the very beginning, if the back
of the Rolls-Royce is a red sofa, the end of the play [cycle]
should be a red sofa. In both the Rolls-Royce play [about the
King's exile in 1929] and the last play, Canopy of Stars
[set in the present], there is the sense of finality, of tragedy,
and people seeking comfort in a sofa. I like that you have this
huge wall falling down, you have all of that, and it's reduced
and reduced and reduced, and then you have the bunker, and then
you have the blackout scene, and then the lights come up and it's
just a sofa. Director Indhu Rubasingham at one point said, "Are
we missing something? Shouldn't we end with a great finale?" And
Nick and I said in unison, "No, it's just got to be one man on
a sofa. That's all." Because that's the awfulness of it.
Some of the plays were single set, and then you also had to deal
with different settings within a very short play, especially the
four settings in Honey by Ben Ockrent: Islamabad's U.S.
embassy; Defense Minister Massoud's office in Kabul; Massoud's
bedroom in northern Afghanistan; and another room in the house.
PH: Part of the discussion
was having all those scene changes in a thirty-minute play. However,
the question was how you did it in the end. I had to try and find
elements that would very simply make these different locations--and
funnily enough, Honey did work quite well.
TS: Especially because
of the connecting monologues, with the character narrating downstage.
PH: Actually, I thought
it was really rather a good play.
TS: I did too. And that
play is central for the design afterward of the projection of
the bombing of the Twin Towers and the mural wall falling down.
PH: Of course, I didn't
know that at the time. That's what I thought was so brilliant.
That Nick was able to bring it in exactly there. Originally there
was a thought that if we had the mural, the whitewashing scene
would happen all at the beginning, and the whole of the plays
would be done against white, and I'm really glad that didn't happen
because you need time to absorb what that is.
TS: Yes, it's shocking
when the mural begins to get painted over, and you get the double
shock when you come back for Part 3, and it's all been whitewashed.
PH: So you can build it.
But of course in the beginning, we certainly didn't know that.
TS: I'm in awe that you
did that without knowing what the plays were.
PH: So am I. It's so unlike
the way I work. I have done very big-scale work. On the whole,
I can bring big things together. I suppose the signature of my
work is to do things very simply that appear to be hugely complicated.
TS: What was wonderful
about Canopy of Stars was that it was very simple--the
sandbag bunker, the blackout, a sofa in a house in Manchester--and
yet the places changed dramatically. Is there anything else you'd
like to tell me about?
PH: I hope Nick gets proper
recognition for this thing. Because what he's done is opened up
the debate. The question you have to ask at the end is, "What
the hell are we doing there?" And I suppose every country would
be asking the same thing. Without making a didactic polemic, he's
posed the question by the consequence of what is being shown.
The conclusion anybody must come to is, What's it all about? And
I think back to Ron Hutchinson's Durand's Line [in Part
1, set in Kabul in 1893], when Foreign Secretary Durand says,
"A thing has to be defined … That's what this whole century has
been about." The Amir says [about the British proposal for Afghanistan's
border], "But what if we move the line?" And you suddenly realize
the enormity of this whole thing that's sucked the world in, and
the death and the destruction, and it was all about a line being
TS: I loved that play.
I never thought of maps in that way.
PH: You've got to have
maps, Durand says, 'cause you've got to "stick pins in it."
TS: I never thought of
a map as something arbitrary. Of course it is.
PH: And when the Amir
says, Well, give me this, I'll draw England for you. I don't like
where Scotland is, so I'll move it--it's a very moving moment.
And the other thing, I'd say finally, I do think that Nick and
Indhu between them cast it brilliantly. In the end, it's the quality
of that ensemble acting, and they were very well cast. You think,
that small theatre, and all those plays, and those people and
casting of that quality--it's something. So I can only say it
nearly killed me, but I'm glad to have been part of it.
Photos courtesy of Pamela Howard and copyright