Review: Blood and Gifts (2010) at the National Theatre | ArtsHub UK

The was originally published on ArtsHub (UK) as “Blood & Gifts” at London’s National Theatre

The saying goes that those who ignore history are bound to repeat it. And it would seem that 150 years of failed Western attempts at gaining the upper hand in Afghanistan was not enough to dissuade British, Russian or American and NATO forces from attempting to advance their own political and economic interests in this graveyard of empires. It is this that JT Rogers’ formidable new play, Blood and Gifts, explores at the National Theatre – the first American play to receive its world premiere at the Lyttleton Theatre.

This isn’t Rogers’ first showing at the National; his play The Overwhelming about the Rwandan genocide played the Cottlesoe in 2006. Following on its success and that of the one-act version of Blood and Gifts as part of “The Great Game: Afghanistan” (last year’s 12-play cycle at the Tricycle), the play is compelling and relevant.

Blood and Gifts’ greatest success is presenting – with both pathos and humour – the cultural, historical, political, and religious complexities of the Afghanistan conflict. This Rogers does exquisitely while still managing, however fleetingly, to make each of the key players three-dimensional characters that are at once sympathetic and deeply flawed. Meanwhile, under the expert direction of Howard Davies, a sleek and versatile set designed by Ultz; lighting and sound designs by Paul Anderson and Paul Arditti; and music by Marc Teitler move us seamlessly across four countries (Pakistan, Afghanistan, the United States and Great Britain) over ten years (1981–1991).

The impressive play script is animated magnificently by a stellar cast. The lead is the largely unflappable and shrewd American CIA agent, James Warnock (played by Lloyd Owen), whose Achilles heel is his problematic belief that “doing the right thing” should be fundamental to US foreign policy. He is superbly supported by Matthew Marsh as the slick and sardonic Dmitri Gromov, a Soviet agent in Pakistan; the charismatic Demosthenes Chrysan as Afghan Mujahidin leader Abdullah Khan; Philip Arditti as the sly and passionate Mujahidin fighter Saeed; and Adam James as the brilliant but bumbling British agent Simon Craig.

Nevertheless, with a play this ambitious, there are lingering questions about some of Rogers’ choices. Though the humour is clever and distinctive, one wonders whether it is accurate or even advantageous to depict Mujahidin fighters as slavish followers of American pop culture, who risk life and limb to acquire Tina Turner albums or motivate themselves with Rambo III and the Eagles’ “Hotel California”. One also wonders what potential there may have been in putting real-life characters on to the stage like the infamous Islamist warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who in this incarnation are mentioned but never appear.

Rogers has insisted that the play is not about indicting those involved in the burgeoning and virtually unwinnable Afghan conflict, and this is salient by the conclusion of the play. There are no heroes and no villains, but a clash of beliefs about what is “right” and an endless cycle of conflict as competing groups try to avenge their losses and protect their own interests. One is left with the disquieting question about whether the future of humanity will ever be any different.

Blood and Gifts was commissioned as a full-length play by Lincoln Centre Theatre in New York City, where it is scheduled to premiere in 2011. It plays at The National Theatre (Lyttleton), Southbank Centre, London, until 14 November, 2010. For tickets and information on the remainder of its London run, visit: http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/59862/productions/blood-and-gifts.html

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