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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 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 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 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.

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 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 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 of it.

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 drawn.

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.