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 The Theatreguide.London Review


Blood and Gifts
Lyttelton Theatre  Autumn 2010

During the Cold War American foreign policy was very simple - The enemy of my enemy is my friend. Anyone who could make the case that he was fighting Communism would get a blank cheque and a blind eye to his flaws from the CIA or the State Department.

And thus it came to pass that in Afghanistan in the 1980s the USA gave millions of dollars and loads of guns to the very people they are fighting in that country today. (Am I the only one who remembers the standard journalistic rubric 'courageous Taliban freedom fighters'?)

J T Rogers' new play, an expansion of a short piece that was part of the Tricycle Theatre's Afghanistan season last year, shows just how the US, and to a lesser extent Britain, found themselves backing all the wrong horses thirty years ago. And it is very much to the playwright's credit that the very complicated story, with all its twists and convolutions, is totally clear. (Whether it's successful dramatically is another question I'll get to.)

When the Soviet army entered Afghanistan their opposition was a very loose collection of local warlords, most hating each other almost as much as they did the Russians. To avoid World War III the US had to keep its support covert, which meant that the money had to be filtered in through Pakistan, which meant that the Pakistanis determined who would get it. This forced the Americans to open a second, even more covert line of aid to the leaders they wanted.

And of course everybody lied to everybody else about their real agendas, and of course everybody made sure that some of the money that passed through their hands stuck there. And while Rogers may be oversimplifying things with his conclusion that the end result was the empowerment of the most radical Afghan Muslims and thus the spread of fundamentalist Islam throughout the region, there's little doubt that at least some of today's problems were generated by the simplistic anti-Sovietism of the Americans back then.

Rogers' way of telling this story is to focus on a fictional American CIA operative in Pakistan, dealing with his Pakistani intermediaries while going behind their backs to find his own apparently moderate warlord.

The playwright  makes it clear that all geopolitics is ultimately local and personal, dependent on how much two men - the American and the Pakistani, the American and his pet warlord, the American and his KGB opposite - can trust each other. And he makes it clear that in this particular case there were limits to how much any of them could be trusted.

As I said, that is all always clear and generally interesting enough to hold your attention through the almost-three-hours of Rogers' play. The problem is that it is almost three hours, and there really isn't a lot of suspense or forward movement.

Although Rogers' hero is somewhat less naive than Westerners usually are in this sort of play, there is still only one direction for his story to go - the eventual discovery that at best he was riding the tiger and never really controlling it.

Director Howard Davies always lets us know where and when we are in the story, which is an accomplishment in itself, though he might have done a greater service by guiding his playwright to cutting the text by as much as a quarter.

Lloyd Owen leaves no doubt that the CIA man he plays is both intelligent and honourable and makes us believe his sincere pain when those qualities prove insufficient, and there are strong performances by Demosthenes Chrysan as the Afghan client who becomes a friend, and Matthew Marsh as the KGB man who does as well.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Blood and Gifts - National Theatre 2010