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Cadets' Afghanistan training at the theatre

By Stephanie West

Updated on 30 July 2010

Britain's next generation of soldiers have been sent to the theatre - to learn about Afghanistan. As Stephanie West reports - officer cadets spent a day watching a series of plays about Afghan history at a North London theatre at the request of the man who will be the country's most senior military officer.

'The Great Game' at London's Tricycle Theatre (Credit: Tricycle Theatre)

What struck me about the young officer cadets, waiting to see a marathon of twelve short plays about Afghanistan at The Tricycle Theatre was that a good few were on crutches and bearing bandages on arms and hands.

In fact they had not seen action yet, this was the unit of Sandhurst who were currently recovering from strains and tears from training in their first year. And in a break from traditional training, they had been sent to this Kilburn theatre, to learn about the past.

Mostly in their early 20s, once recovered, they will be among the next generation of British soldiers sent to Afghanistan, and at the behest of Britain's most senior military figure, General Sir David Richards, they were here to watch plays that he hopes will help them understand the lay of the land where they are most certain to serve in the next 18 months.

Consisting of a dozen pieces, 'The Great Game' tells the story of conflict in Afghanistan, from the 19th century to the present today, written by a series of playwrights.

Interspersed with interviews garnered from key military figures specifically for this project, then voiced by actors, General Sir David Richards gave an interview, and when he went to see the result, he was so impressed he asked the Tricycle Theatre's director, Nicolas Kent, to put on an 'Army Day' for an audience of cadets, to help them come a historic perspective on the conflict in Afghanistan.

General Richards, who takes up his post as head of Britain's armed forces this autumn, says even for himself, watching the plays that trace the roots of Britain's conflicts in Afghanistan back to 1842, was a great eye-opener.

He told the audience, addressing them during an interval, "If I'd seen these before I deployed there myself in 2005 for the first time, it would have made me a better commander."

His young charges were assembled for a marathon viewing, beginning at lunchtime, they would stretch into the late evening, but they were eager for information.

"I want to know more about the people of Afghanistan," said one, adding that her boyfriend was already serving out there, and she expected to be posted there within eighteen months. Yes she was apprehensive, but she also said clearly, that she very much wanted to go.

It takes some commitment to see the plays, half an hour each, they are watched in blocks of four, a trilogy viewed over three nights, or as a day long sitting on Saturday.

The Tricycle's Director Nicolas Kent says it is purely to inform, not to make a political statement about whether Britain is right or wrong to be in Afghanistan. He adds, that it is, "to say to the audience, now you're better informed, go and debate the issues."

But for the actor Daniel Betts, who plays a series of characters across the dozen plays, it was an interesting day.

The reaction of a military audience was noticeably different, he observed. "Every line that was derogatory about the top brass, they were 'ha ha ha' they especially loved all that."

But he adds that the audiences learn just how ingrained the history of conflict is, among the Taliban. One of the plays, 'Bugles at the Gates of Jalalabad' reiterates how fighters know every facet of battles stretching back two centuries.

It reflects the fact that even today, fighters carry the drawing of a young female Afghan warrior Malalai, who saved the day when she joined her father and lover, on what should have been her wedding day, in the attack on the British back in 1880. She shouted encouragement to flagging fighters, and legend has it, saved the day.

"To this day," says Betts, "she is their Joan of Arc, and they carry pictures of her close to their heart."

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