Spun off from the Tricycle Theatre's "Great Game" series of short plays about Afghanistan, J.T. Rogers' Blood and Gifts goes back to an earlier conflict there, and spans the 1980s. In fact most of the action takes place in Pakistan, as the lead character is CIA agent Warnock (Lloyd Owen, barely leaving the stage for the entire play) and Americans were banned from setting foot in Soviet-controlled Afghanistan. The decade's turmoil in the region, as the US tried to pick the right warlords to supply with weapons to overthrow the Russians, is seen through Warnock's relationships with three men: His main "asset," an Afghan warlord whom he supplies with cash and weapons in return for information and cooperation; and his MI6 and KGB equivalents in Pakistan. All built on suspicion, these relationships all develop into something that looks a lot like friendship.
I didn't see the original short version but Rogers has impressively drawn this out, the writing does a good job of bringing a distant, abstract conflict from the past to life. The various secret servicemen do have a touch of the stereotype about them - the unflappable CIA man who actually cares, dammit, the hassled, underfunded Brit (Adam James) and the sardonic Russian (Matthew Marsh) - but the actors invest them with a lot of character. Demosthenes Chrysan also subtly builds up the personality of Abdullah, the warlord who seemingly begins to trust Warnock, into someone we can care about. One way the play keeps our interest is in the frequent use of humour, much of it from the excellent James as well as Philip Arditti's pop music-obsessed Saeed. I did think though that the script could have been a bit more tightly edited here and there, not an unusual problem with new plays at the National - a few scenes are overlong and the play lasts nearly 3 hours, its ending rather overstating the obvious moral that the US' actions in the 80s contributed to the rise of their current nemeses in the Middle East. Overall though it's impressive, and Howard Davies directs a slick production - the sense of continuing movement helped by Ultz' set, which has locations slide in and out of each other like a puzzle box. Some of the flats slide across the stage very quickly indeed, which does have the side-effect of making the few slight delays stand out a bit. A strong new play at the National though, in a year when their record for new work has been less than stellar overall.
Blood and Gifts by J.T. Rogers is booking until the 14th of November at the National Theatre's Lyttelton.