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
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 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
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
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 it.
TS: Back to the mural: Siba
Shakib wrote a piece about Malalai. Did you ask her to do that?
PH: 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
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
TS: 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 the idea.
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
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 neighbors involved.
TS: During the blackout of Canopy
of Stars, the poppies disappear for the final scene.
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
TS: 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