Homebody / Kabul 2004

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The most remarkable play in a decade... without doubt the most important of our timeNew York Observer

Tony Kushner's remarkable play was completed before the events of September 11, 2002 brought Afghanistan to the front pages.

World premiere 5 December 2001 New York Theatre Workshop
European premiere 10 May 2002 Young Vic Theatre, London
London run 10 May - 22 June 2002 Young Vic Theatre, London
Subsequently toured to Barcelona in July 2002 for Grec 2002
A version of the first scene was performed at the Chelsea Centre, London in July 1999 by Kika Markham, for whom it was written

Co-produced by Cheek by Jowl and the Young Vic in association with New York Theatre Workshop.

Find out more by visiting the entry for this production in our archive
Cast

In order of speaking

Kika MarkhamHomebody
Antony BunseeDr Qari Shah / Border guard
Kevork MalikyanMullah Ali Aftar Durrani
William ChubbMilton Ceiling
Mark BazeleyQuango Twistleton
Jacqueline DefferaryPriscilla Ceiling
Silas CarsonMunkrat / Zai Garshi / Marabout
Souad FaressMahala
Nadim SawalhaKwaja Aziz Mondanabosh

Creatives
DirectorDeclan Donnellan
DesignerNick Ormerod
LightingJudith Greenwood
MovementJane Gibson
MusicPaddy Cunneen
SoundPaul Arditti
Assistant DirectorEdward Dick

2002

An educated Muslim woman, driven to the edge of madness in Kabul during the era of American support for the Taliban, threatens a Westerner: "You love the Taliban so much, bring them to New York! Well, don't worry, they're coming to New York! Americans!"

At the outset, Mr. Kushner throws down an ace with the Homebody's monologue, saturated with its dazzling distractions and erudition. Has there ever been an opening to a major play like it? "Our story begins at the very dawn of history, circa 3,000 B.C.", the British lady in the string of pearls begins, reading in her witty, animated way from an outdated 1965 guidebook about the ancient city of Kabul. In the tiny London souvenir store, the Homebody imagines or experiences - for both can be one and the same thing - that she can speak fluent Pashto and, led by the maimed Afghan hat-seller to Kabul, makes love to him. The monologue closes with the eccentric Homebody singing along to Sinatra's It's Nice to Go Trav'ling. "Such an awful awful man, such perfect perfect music! A paradox!"

Was she hacked to pieces, caught in the crossfire of history when President Clinton began bombing Afghanistan? Or is this urban romantic of drab suburban London still alive? Is she a Muslim convert, now voluntarily devoid of books - words! - her music - Sinatra! - and all things Western? Is she married to an Afghan?

The second and third acts take us in search of the answers when Homebody's daughter searches for the body of her mother. Mr. Kushner is often at his vivid best with characters for whom he has the least sympathy. It's like watching a meltdown of the damned.

There's so much fine work to admire here: the director, Declan Donnellan, and his longtime designer, Nick Ormerod. The most gifted Mr. Donnellan directed Angels in America to great acclaim in London at the Royal National Theater. His assured sense of rhythm, the energy and pulse of the entire piece, are a tribute to his generous talent.

I have run out of space and superlatives - Tony Kushner's Homebody/Kabul is the most remarkable play in a decade - without doubt the most important of our time. John Heilpern, New York Observer. 4 January 2002
Tony Kushner is not a writer who makes things easy for himself - or his audience. His first big success, Angels in America, an epic "gay fantasia" about AIDS and Reaganism, had a total playing time of some seven hours. This new piece lasts just under four, but it begins with an hour-long monologue delivered by a middle-aged, middle-class English woman who constantly uses words of baffling obscurity.

Yet it's impossible not to admire the range, ambition, and rare spirit of generosity that pervades Kushner's work. He makes most other contemporary dramatists look like fussy miniaturists while he sloshes words and ideas around like a theatrical Jackson Pollock.

But that analogy won't quite do, because there is nothing abstract about Kushner's writing. He has an old-fashioned relish for a good tale, and after that daunting first act, which combines a history of Afghanistan with the woman's confessions about her unhappy family and her sexual fantasy about an Afghan shopkeeper, the action shifts to Kabul under the Taliban. The monologist has abandoned her home and fled to Kabul, inspired by her reading of an old guidebook. Her computer engineer husband, Milton, and her bolshie unemployed daughter, Priscilla, have come to the benighted city (it's 1998, at the time of the American bombardment of suspected terrorist training camps) to try to find her.

It appears, however, that they have come too late. A doctor describes - in hideous detail - how she was torn apart by a gang of youths inflamed by anti-Western sentiment. But the woman's remains have gone missing and in a trawl round Kabul's hospitals Priscilla meets a Tajik poet and learns that her mother has actually married an influential Afghan and converted to Islam. More intriguingly, it is proposed that she and her dad should take his first wife back to England.

The piece could hardly be more topical in its portrayal of Islamic fundamentalists, and there are some hair-raising scenes in which the Westerners come face to face with the Taliban. The writing ranges from the hauntingly poetic to the earthily vernacular, from high anguish to low comedy, but there is no mistaking the seriousness of Kushner's theme. The Western characters have lost their faith, "succumbed to luxury" and found only unhappiness. The Taliban, believing only God can save them, have erected a system of monstrous cruelty. Is there no middle way? A touching final scene suggests there might be.

Declan Donnellan directs a gripping, marvellously well acted production for Cheek by Jowl, simply but evocatively designed by Nick Ormerod. Kika Markham negotiates the opening monologue with humour and grace, Jacqueline Defferary plays Priscilla with blazing intensity, and there is strong support from William Chubb as her emotionally constipated father, Mark Bazeley as the smack-shooting British government liaison officer "Quango" Twistleton, Nadim Sawalha as the mysterious poet, and Souad Faress as the discarded Afghan wife.

Homebody/Kabul is a richly rewarding, hugely imaginative drama, in which Kushner combines poetry and politics, heartache and humour with rare panache. Charles Spence, Daily Telegraph. 24 May 2002
Most American dramatists look inwards. Tony Kushner has always gazed outwards. And not the least remarkable fact about Homebody/Kabul, written well before the events of last September, is that it attempts to embrace and explain the history, culture and ethos of Afghanistan.

Admittedly the first third of this epic play, running well over three-and-a-half hours, is much the most startling. It consists of a lengthy monologue, breathtakingly delivered by Kika Markham, in which a London homebody reveals her insatiable curiosity about history in general and Kabul in particular. Through this "unregenerate chatterer", Kushner traces the history of a city that attracted empire-builders such as Darius and Alexander, was introduced to Islam in 652AD and has been occupied and fought over for centuries.

Kushner not only offers us a portrait of a gentle-spirited, factually voracious, syntactically eccentric woman who claims "I love, love the world", he also establishes his main theme which is that Afghanistan has always been a vital intersection at the mercy of history, geography and spiritual absolutists. But, after the brilliance of the first part, the play settles for mere competence as we see the homebody's husband and daughter pursuing her to Kabul to which she has been ineluctably drawn. She may have been beaten to death by unknown assailants. She may be still alive and secretly married to a Muslim. But, having started as a record of an ungovernable obsession, the play becomes a political mystery about innocents abroad in a strange land.

Along the way, Kushner makes many sharp points. He sits the action in 1998 shortly after Clinton had bombed Afghan terrorist camps as a reprisal for attacks on American embassies; but we are reminded that Clinton was no more successful than Bush in tracking down Osama bin Laden. But Kushner also shows how an unknowable country like Afghanistan exercises a peculiar hold on the western imagination. And running through the play is the idea that every creed and faith, from communism to Islam, wants to dominate Afghanistan but that in the end it eludes even its conquerors.

Although the pudding is somewhat over-egged, it is a richly interesting play and Declan Donnellan has staged it exceptionally well against a simple Nick Ormerod set consisting of a peeling wooden stockade. The acting triumph of the evening be longs to Kika Markham who for more than an hour keeps us riveted with a strange, rambling, word-mangling woman's belief in the overwhelming power of history. Michael Billington, The Guardian. 23 May 2002