Blood and Gifts
is the second play I’ve seen by American playwright JT Rogers. He’s
also had Madagascar on at Theatre 503 and this play began as a 25-minute
play as part of The Great Game. However, all I’d seen before was The Overwhelming, a play about the beginnings of the Rwandan genocide, done by Out of Joint in the Cottesloe.
This is about the covert US intervention
in 1980s war in Afghanistan war. It takes us from the decision to put
CIA operatives into Pakistan in 1981 to aid the Mujahideen and ends with
the 1991 decision to close the book on US operations over there. It
focuses on Jim Warnock, the CIA guy looking after operations there, but
we also see a Soviet spy, a British MI6 figure and of course many
figures from the Pakistan ISI and one rebel group. We watch the war turn
from a battle for supremacy and territory between covert superpowers to
a religious war. Of course it’s partly a history play, but mainly a
history of the present. To anyone who wonders how the Taliban and a
Mujahideen and maybe al-Qaeda come to be fighting allied and NATO forces
as they are, this play shows us.
It’s pretty good. It is written in a
structural style that feels a little dated - Edgar, Hare that sort of
play - and there is a frankly manifested desire to educate us about the
war that I never find edifying. But that’s all I have to fault it with.
It is educating; but it’s also a bit of a thriller, with twists and
good characters and some terrific jokes. The play finds absurd laughter
in the situation: the Mujahideen soldiers are desperate for US weapons,
but almost equally desperate for Tina Turner cassettes. The Pakistani
ISI Colonel has a Clerk who offers jarringly funny moments of
sycophancy. The play captures very well the difference between British
and American policy and British and American senses of humour. There is a
refreshing sense that no one is just mocked, everyone is treated
seriously. Rogers has done his homework but also his heartwork properly
trying to let his characters stand on their own two feet.
I must say, though it’s been admired by
most of the critics, I didn’t take to Howard Davies’s production. Mostly
scene changes were effected by whizzing in side panels to create new
backgrounds - which is a good thing, kept the thing moving and allowed a
sense of the ‘runaway train’ aspect of this war - but there was a
horribly taupe and foursquare set that had very little magic to it.
There was a little too much of the main character looking out craggily
to the audience as the lights went down on a scene. It all felt clunky
and stolid and self-important. Some terrific performances though.
In short: not my sort of thing really, but vigorously written and I learned a lot.