Representing Our Fates

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Review of 'Homebody/Kabul' by Tony Kushner, Young Vic, London

This ambitious and powerful drama is set principally in Kabul under the Taliban. In the aftermath of the 1998 American air strike ordered by President Clinton, the mullahs are in full control. The Homebody of the title has travelled in the hope of finding the ancient Afghanistan, the exotic, historic crossroads of civilisations that she has read of in books. She disappears, apparently murdered, and the efforts of her daughter and husband to discover her fate lift the veil on the reality of modern Afghanistan, a crossroads of the drug trade, political ambition, international terrorism, and the war for oil.

A crude summary does not begin to do justice to a play that has earned great praise in the US since its first performance in December last year. First because of its extraordinary structure--the first hour is devoted to a monologue in which the neurotic unfulfilled life of the Homebody is counterposed to the drama, mystery and poetry of Afghan history, starting 'at the very dawn of history, circa 3000 BC'. This amazing opening scene shifts like a kaleidoscope from modern London to ancient Macedonia, from the first murderer, Cain--in legend the founder of Kabul--to the modern murderers, by way of the Moghul emperors.

There has been nothing quite like this in the theatre for some time, and one criticism of this play might be that it cannot sustain the same level in the subsequent scenes. However, that would be to overlook the way in which Tony Kushner intertwines the lives and fates of his main characters with the fate of Aghanistan.

Not the least of his achievements is to depict the fate of Afghan women under the Taliban with a rage that literally transcends language. The burqa is the least of their problems, though it is the most visible. Their minds are cut off, atrophied. In the words of Mahala, a librarian who is seeking to flee the country, 'They close library! Library! This is Islam?... To leave is a terrible thing. But I must be saved. Yesterday I could not remember the alphabet.'

Kushner's play is already celebrated for another reason. Written well before the 11 September attacks, it seems to forecast the events. 'We must suffer under the Taliban so that the US might settle a 20 year old score with Iran. You love the Taliban so much, bring them to New York! Well, don't worry, they're coming to New York.' Yet as the author, himself a New Yorker, points out, you did not have to be psychic to anticipate at least the broad outline of the consequences of US foreign policy.

For the 'Wall Street Journal' this play 'might as well have been created by a Taliban playwright'--an insult as grotesque as the politics of the Taliban themselves. What the play does represent is the best sort of political theatre: questioning, moving and linking the fate of individual men and women with great world events. Kushner says that his 'greatest hope for a play is always that it might prove generative of thought, contemplation, discussion'. This work certainly justifies that hope.