All the World as Declan's Stage; Director Declan Donnellan's Latest Production - a Play about Afghanistan - Has Just Opened in New York. He Talks to Nick Curtis about His Knack for Being in the Right Place at the Strangest Times

Article excerpt

Byline: NICK CURTIS

THOSE who monitor international upheavals should keep an eye on director Declan Donnellan. In 1989, his acclaimed company, Cheek by Jowl, was touring Eastern Europe and found itself amid a series of revolutions. In 1999, he was scheduled to direct Pushkin's Boris Godunov at the 5,000-seat Red Army Theatre in Moscow, until the collapse of Boris Yeltsin's government and the situations in Chechnya and Kosovo interrupted his plans. And this week, the 48-year-old director finds himself premiering a play about Afghanistan, Tony Kushner's Homebody/Kabul, at the 170-seat New York Theater Workshop, just six blocks downtown from the remains of the World Trade Center.

"We wondered whether we were going to have to cancel," admits Donnellan, "but there seemed to be a tremendous sense in New York that life must go on.

And since the events of 11 September, the play does seem prescient."

Homebody/Kabul is, in fact, two plays. The first, written by Kushner some years ago, is a monologue about Afghanistan by a woman who may be in love with an Arab. In the second, the woman's daughter meets her Arab father in a Kabul hotel room, learns that her mother is missing, possibly killed by anti-western extremists, and sets off on a burqa-clad journey through the city to discover the truth.

The second play is firmly located in 1998, immediately after Bill Clinton bombed the country, apparently to distract world attention from the Lewinsky scandal. "Tony's been obsessed with Afghanistan for years," says Donnellan.

"The play was written in the context of a time when people didn't know much about the country, and there is a lot of information in it. Even though people now feel they know a lot more (Kushner himself has pointed out that Americans now pronounce Kabul correctly), there have been no lines added.

Nothing has been changed.

"The play is a murder mystery," Donnellan continues, "but it's also - like all Tony's work - epic and poetic in scale."

Those who remember Kushner's Angels in America, a staggering, eighthour, two-part musing on history, politics, sexuality and religion which Donnellan premiered at the National Theatre in 1993, will know what he means. Is Homebody/Kabul similar in scope and theatrical dash? "Well, we don't bring an angel on at the end," smiles Donnellan. Is the play sympathetic to the Afghan people? "It's about the moral complexity of a situation that isn't about white hats and black hats. …