at the Lyttelton Theatre, Monday 13th September 2010
Earlier in the year, Howard Davies’ superb production of Bulgakov’s The White Guard explored the horrors of war during the Russian Revolution, but exposed the farce of the situation. In his production of JT Rogers’ Blood and Gifts, Davies tackles the similarly brutal conflict of the Soviet war in Afghanistan, focussing more on the conflict behind the scenes rather than on the front line. Both plays consider shifting loyalties and the language of trust, but Blood and Gifts also questions the right of external forces to be in countries where they don’t belong.
The action of the play takes place over a period of ten years, and follows the movements of James Warnock, who has been sent to Afghanistan to gather intelligence for the US. Warnock has to appease an Afghan warlord and his troupe of Duran-Duran-singing men, and although they do not always see eye to eye, they share a hatred for the Soviets. Behind their backs, however, Warnock is being goaded by the British Simon Craig to take more action, that, like “chess, you should never get too attached to one piece”. While Warnock genuinely wishes to restore order and peace, it is clear that those around him see Afghanistan as no more than a battleground for the Cold War.
Everyone is a puppet, unable to control their actions or their fate. This is mirrored in the script with references to the different beliefs of the various parties. This is as much a crusade as it is a war of land. The power of words is also considered, and the Afghan’s inability to see metaphor in the words of 80s pop music is deeply moving. We are also asked to consider how trusted we can be when telling our own stories, as the intricate web of lies and deceit unravels itself, questioning how much is propaganda and how much the truth.
The cast is extremely strong. Demosthenes Chrysan and Philip Ardatti as the warlord Abdullah and his aide Saeed are both sensitive and brutal in their roles, and Matthew Marsh, although it seems his thoughts are sometimes elsewhere, brings comedy in the role of the Russian Gromov. Adam James as Simon Craig has some of the best lines in the play (“Maggie Thatcher should be dragged from Downing Street, draped in a Burkha and stoned”) from a British perspective he is our way in to the politics of the piece. Lloyd Owen excels in the lead role of Warnock, showing a man struggling to choose between morals and orders. He carries the piece, and in many ways his journey is just as important as that of the Afghans.
The intricate and versatile set, designed by Ultz, allows for a multitude of different scenes, the dull cream walls contrasting greatly with the affluence of the West. Shown in letterbox so that we focus on the characters, the lighting grid is raised and lowered, creating a feeling at times that the ceiling is literally caving in. Paul Anderson’s lighting and Marc Teitler’s music are just as epic as the text itself.
Throughout the play, within the savage arguments and underhand bargaining, there are beautiful moments of peace, when focus shifts to the individuals on show. During one of these lulls, Gromov states that while “tragedy is comedy plus time,” Afghanistan is “tragedy plus time”. It is a tragedy which both Russia and America created and which, as Rogers observes, neither had a right to be a part of. The span and scope of Blood and Gifts is huge, but unlike Earthquakes in London there is a singular narrative and clear focus. This is epic theatre at its best.