Tony Kushner's controversial new play Homebody/Kabul, starring his friend, actress Kika Markham, opens at the Young Vic Theatre on May 22.
The Young Vic has something of a radical reputation to keep up — it has occasionally been a sort of Royal Court in Exile, and retains something of the un (if not anti-) establishment energy that the Royal Court used to generate in its heyday. Similarly, Cheek by Jowl, with whom this is a co-production, has its own reputation for interesting interpretations of offbeat subjects to maintain.
Having just staged a sell-out production of Doctor Faustus, in which the lead actor, movie star Jude Law, needed the attentions of a real-life doctor on two occasions after over-exerting himself in Christopher Marlowe's tragedy, the Young Vic is now going for a radical new play that is very much swimming against the tide of received political opinion.
Homebody/Kabul, by American playwright Tony Kushner (perhaps best known for his AIDS epic, Angels in America, which was performed at the National a decade ago), is an attack on the current orthodoxy of America's right to be involved in Afghanistan. Kushner began writing a play about the clash of cultures between Afghanistan (a country that has long fascinated him) and the West — specifically the United States and its perceived responsibility for helping the Taliban into power (then primarily seen as an anti-Russian resistance movement, and therefore the "good guys") — several years ago.
The events of September 11 not only gave an unforeseen power to some of the script — particularly the idea that the Afghans might strike back at the States one day — but made this very much left-of-center political play far more controversial than would otherwise have been the case.
Kushner originally conceived the play as a monologue for his leading lady and friend Kika Markham. Markham is a largely unsung but remarkably capable actress. Married to actor Corin Redgrave she, like her husband, has always been known for her political commitments as much as her acting, but she reminded West End audiences at the Gielgud Theatre two years ago of her extraordinary intensity and sympathy onstage with her portrayal of an apparently downtrodden but actually very strong wife to Corin's officially hetero but actually gay character, in Noël Coward's last play, Song at Twilight.
As Tony Kushner has been quoted as saying, regarding his refusal to alter the piece in the light of the patriotic fervor that swept American after September 11, "It will be interesting to see what everybody makes of it" — "it" being a four-hour-long epic about the American involvement in Afghanistan.
He is up against the fact that the subject, and its epic length, does not strike most people as particularly appealing. We live, after all, in an age when 90-minute productions — preferably comedies — are all the rage. However, its unforeseen topicality gives it an inherent interest, and even the play's critics in the States (where the emotional reaction to the play has been understandably more charged than is likely to be the case in London) have commented on the theatricality of the piece and the extraordinary power of some of Kushner's set-piece speeches. Add to this Markham's involvement in and commitment to the play, in which she plays an Englishwoman who goes missing in the Afghan capital Kabul, and it looks likely to be a very powerful production.
—By Paul Webb Theatrenow