“Russian soldiers being shot with Chinese bullets, sometimes the world is so beautiful”
JT Rogers’ Blood and Gifts started off life as one of the short plays that constituted The Great Game, the Tricycle’s hugely ambitious cycle of works about Afghanistan. He withdrew it from the recent re-run of that set of shows to work it up into a full length play which now premieres at the Lyttelton in the National Theatre. It has apparently had a few teething problems resulting in the first preview being cancelled, so this is a review what became the second preview.
The play starts off in 1981 in Pakistan, in the offices of the Intelligence Services there and up in the mountainous borders with Afghanistan, as James Warnock a CIA agent is sent to the region to try and stop the Soviets in their aggression. In order to do so, Warnock needs to negotiate with the Pakistani Intelligence Services, the KGB and MI6 presence there and most trickily, with the slippery Afghan warlords whose loyalties are easily bought but just as easily lost. We then track events for the next 10 years as the war continues, relationships develop over money and arms, watching appeals at the US senate for Stinger missiles, then finally moving to Afghan foothills for a blistering climax when some serious truths are finally revealed.
Rogers’ writing is just brilliant. He really nails the climate of suspicion between all parties and the unashamed duplicity from all sides as they each pursue their own agendas in the name of stopping the Soviets. It is particularly good as highlighting the vast miscalculations made by the West, whether it is the perceived slight in sending an inexperienced operative who calls everyone ‘dude’ to deal with touchy warlords, or the well-intentioned but ultimately flawed decision to back one guy over the other to find they’re not who they said they were. And the end result of all this meddling, the sinking of huge amounts of funding and arms to the Islamist cause, clearly has huge resonance today. He has a great ear for realistic linguistic slip-ups that foreigners make when attempting aphorisms and sayings in English without coming across as patronising, and there’s huge amounts of humour (and one deeply moving moment) in the Mujahideen’s quest for understanding 80s song lyrics.
Lloyd Owen is just superb as Warnock, the CIA agent acutely aware of the mass of cultural sensitivities needed to deal with all the various parties in the arena and able to roll off lines of Russian, Farsi and Pashto most effectively (though I can’t comment how accurately!). It didn’t strike me until the end, but I don’t think he leaves the stage for more than a few seconds at any point throughout the quite considerable running time and he is convincing throughout as a man struggling to follow the advice to never ‘sacrifice more than is necessary’ in achieving peace in the region but satisfying the needs of his personal life too. He also develops a very moving chemistry with Demosthenes Chrysan’s wily Abdullah Khan, the inscrutable Mujahideen leader with whom a grudging respect is painstakingly built.
Matthew Marsh is excellent as his KGB counterpoint, once you get over the comedy Russian accent, suggesting real danger beneath the placid exterior and a real human depth to the character. And Adam James is scene-stealingly good as the permanently harassed Simon, Warnock’s MI6 equivalent with some of the funniest lines in the show. Gerald Kyd as a smooth corrupt Pakistani general and Simon Kunz’s ruthless but understanding CIA chief were also strong.
It was nice to see Philip Arditti get a substantial role for once, he’s been on the sidelines of a few good plays recently and does well here as Khan’s deputy and would-be playboy Saeed with a brilliant attempted seduction scene: I will never hear Tina Turner in the same light again! Danny Ashok (recognisable from Four Lions) as a overkeen clerk and Jessica Regan as an officious Congress staffer have great amusing little cameos. I wasn’t keen on the use of supernumeries though: having a couple of people running through an airport lounge or walking down a corridor past the main actors proved more of a distraction than creating the requisite atmosphere. The Mujahideen scenes were well played though.
The White Guard, also directed by Howard Davies, had one of the most elegant yet innovative stage designs I’ve seen at the Lyttelton, but this play unfortunately has one of the ugliest. Ultz has created a structurally very tricksy set of interlocking and evermoving mini-sets which move and slide in remarkably quickly and smoothly, but ultimately become rather tiresome: they mostly appear to be made of pale, unvarnished plywood. The perspective is also often forced into a letterbox format which much of the play is performed in, of which I was not keen and I am not convinced those in the circle would appreciate at all. Above all though, it is just plain ugly: it reminded of nothing so much as a bungalow from the 1970s rather than harsh Afghan mountainous terrain!
So a good play, a very good play actually, excellently written, incisively analytical and well acted. But also one hindered by its design and staging, I think the Lyttelton is the wrong theatre for this show, a smaller space would have curbed the instinct to overstuff the ensemble and trim down on the design excesses.