Review: Blood and Gifts, National Theatre

“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. Continue reading “Review: Blood and Gifts, National Theatre”

Review: Aftermath, Old Vic Tunnels

“At my interrogations, we just sit like you and I are sitting right now”

Aftermath is a piece of documentary theatre, presented as part of the LIFT theatre festival in the Old Vic Tunnels below Waterloo station. It is based on a series of interviews conducted with 37 Iraqi citizens whose lives were profoundly affected by the war in their country and have been forced to find refuge in Jordan. Names and details have been changed to protect identities but ninety-five percent of the text is apparently just verbatim.

Actor/Directors Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen conducted the interviews in Jordan to find out for themselves what the stories of the Iraqis were and have woven them together to create a coherent, dramatic piece of theatre, presented here by nine actors covering all the parts. It starts by covering life pre-invasion, the struggles under Saddam Hussein’s reign and the life that people built for themselves, in some cases regardless of faith as in the interdenominational society that developed in Fallujah.

Things then take a much darker turn as war starts and the civilians found themselves caught between invading forces and an increasingly lawless Iraq. These stories are the hardest to hear as they just involve so much unconscionable death and violence, families torn apart by an endless rain of bombs, people sequestered in the Abu Ghraib prison, former neighbours pitted against each other. The final thread pursued in these stories is that of how life has had to continue in the refugee camps of Jordan.

It is a sobering experience and all the more impressive that it avoids the bitterness and acrimony that one might expect to find, especially towards the American ‘liberators’ but rather sticks to a solemn mood as the recollections are presented matter-of-factly. The ensemble excel at portraying the vast cross-section of Iraqi society represented here with the bare stage focusing the attention solely on the characterisations taking place in front of us.

However, much like the show that preceded it here at the Old Vic Tunnels, Ditch, it doesn’t really feel like it belongs in here and it is such an idiosyncratic venue that one really does need the show and space to work in perfect harmony. Instead, the rumblings of the trains above just drown out the actors too often and get in the way.

Aftermath is a considerably powerful piece of work, confronting us with an alternative side of a story with which we may feel extremely familiar already. In giving the innocent victims of wartime the voice they are granted here, it shines a light on the true brutality inflicted during times of conflict, and a real sense of the national pride that has survived despite all that has happened.

Running time: 85 minutes
Booking until 17th July