The recent and current conflicts in Afghanistan and the Middle East have provided inspiration for an adaptation of a novella by Rudyard Kipling.
Written in 1888, The Man Who Would Be King tells the story of Peachy Carnelian and Daniel Dravot, two British adventurers in British India who decide to befriend and then enslave the natives and become kings of Kafiristan, a remote part of Afghanistan.
It is directed by Dan Coleman, who alongside actors Christopher Birks and Dan Nicholson who play the two men, adapted it from Kipling’s story for the stage.
In doing so they have updated it from the late 19th century to something much more contemporary.
And following an acclaimed run at the Edinburgh Festival in 2014 they have reworked it slightly for a two-month tour which takes in 14 venues across the country and which started at Greenwich Theatre this week and includes Clapham Omnibus in November.
Dan’s version sees Peachy and Daniel as soldiers for hire in the shifting borders of the Middle East. Tired of the mercenary life, they have come up with a plan, head to Northern Afghanistan, enslave the natives, and install themselves as kings.
However, things don’t go according to plan, not least when the natives revolt.
“The original story was set in the British Raj at the turn of the 19th century and is a bit of a boy’s own story,” Dan tells me. “It’s about two men bringing civility to these savages as they see them - so it’s about vaulted ambition and the sense of entitlement that embodied British colonialism at that time.
“I came across the book in 2013 and was immediately taken with it. I had been looking to do something that was timeless in its appeal as well as a story that asked questions that I felt were vital to the here and now. I felt Kipling’s story fitted the bill perfectly.
“What was interesting to me when I read it was that there are so many parallels to the current situation in the Middle East.
“I adapted it in 2014 as British troops were pulling out of combat roles in Afghanistan and there were questions about the legacy that was being left behind.
“One comparison between the current state of affairs and Kipling’s story is the way western adventurism creates chaos in its wake.
“Over the last few decades the West has felt it is their duty and right to go and install their own versions of democracy in these countries. They have trained militias all over the region but now they find the people they have been training up are turning against them - first as Al Qaeda and now IS.
“The characters in Kipling’s story train Afghans to help keep themselves in power only to have that army turn on them when circumstances change.
“The story also touches on a particularly British sense of entitlement. The soldiers in The Man Who Would Be King feel that the world owes them something - so they go out and take it. It’s the same attitude early Imperialists had – and it’s related to the idea of countries such as Britain and America who feel they can act as the world’s police today. We still believe we have the right to impose regime change through invasion.
“So it felt like a modern parable that had echoes of the past and what is happening now.
“But of course it was also a really exciting story - there is something hugely thrilling and exciting about journeying through the mountains and difficult terrain in the middle of a country that is so different culturally and in other ways on an epic adventure.
“In our version it starts in modern day Pakistan. The two men have stayed in the area but have gone off the map. They are now mercenaries and go off on their own adventure and try and bring civility to the locals who eventually turn on them - they get what’s coming to them.”
After Dan read the book he began looking at ways to bring it to the stage and over the course of a year worked with Dan and Christopher to do so. Much of the work stemmed from researching and reading news reports of what was going on in the area now and there were a lot of Google searches about SAS operations in the area.
“I am sure I am on some Government watch list because of all the searches I’ve done,” Dan laughs. “Looking for information on Pakistan, Afghanistan, failed military operations in the area and so on must have set off lots of alarm bells!
“However, it was important to do the research because I wanted it to fit in a contemporary setting and so it had to be right. Many of the references from the original book needed updating - not least that Pakistan as a country didn’t exist in Kipling’s time - it was just part of Northern India.
“Then there were the distances that were covered - when it was written it would have taken days of walking but now of course we have motorised transport. So there were many things to consider.”
In August 2014 they took it to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival where it received critical acclaim.
They have now reworked it for the tour, adding an extra 30 minutes to the piece but keeping it to just the two actors who take on multiple roles to tell the story.
Dan admits that it was initially a challenge to bring it to the stage in terms of the set but they have worked around this by asking the audience to use their imaginations.
“First and foremost I want the audience to see it as a story that unfolds before them, something that is thrilling and exciting even if you have no interest in the contemporary reference.” says Dan.
“However I really like the idea of those who come to see it being asked to come with us on the journey so they have a part to play.
“Theatre for me works best when it harnesses audiences’ imaginations and they play a part in bringing the story to life. And if you can do that and get them to buy into the characters and connect with them, you can take them anywhere, which is very liberating.
“The story is dark and angry with a lot of dialogue and minimal set - it would have been difficult to recreate the huge mountainous region talked of in the book so we had to work out a way to bring that world to life and in doing so, we nudge the audience to fill in the gaps with their imagination.”
The play is currently at Greenwich Theatre until Saturday before heading off around the country. It will be at the Clapham Omnibus on November 1 and 2.
“I love Greenwich Theatre so it’s great to be back here,” says Dan. “James [Haddrell, artistic director] had seen one of our other shows in Edinburgh and was keen for us to come here which was great. And it will be exciting to come to Clapham later in the run. Both theatres are quite different but we like the fact they are small and intimate. They suit this particular play and it will be interesting to see what audiences make of it.
“I hope they will enjoy and be entertained by the story, but as it asks some interesting and challenging questions, such as what our role is in the world, I hope those who come to see it will take that on board too.”
The Man Who Would Be King is on at Greenwich Theatre until Saturday, September 24. Visit www.greenwichtheatre.org.uk or call the box office on 020 8858 7755 for listings. It is on at The Clapham Omnibus on November 1 and 2. Visit www.omnibus-clapham.org or call the box office on
020 7498 4699 for listings.