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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at National (Lyttleton)


  Lloyd Owen and Demosthenes Chrysan/ Ph: Richard Hubert Smith

As the cast playing the soldiers, Afghan warlords and American, English and Russian spies that populate J.T. Rogers’ new play took their bows, the American man sitting next to me, having spotted my pen and notebook, leaned over to offer an opinion. While applauding Howard Davies’ tense production, he said that he very much admired the fact that Rogers had decided not to politicize his play. It was an astute observation.
Set mainly in Pakistan and Afghanistan, though Washington too, Rogers has written a gripping account of America’s covert campaign to kick the Russian invasion out of Afghanistan during the 1980s. It is, as the man said, political but not politicized.
On one level, the refusal to be critical is admirable. Rather than finding scapegoats for today's and yesterday's Afghan wars, Rogers delivers complexity. Yet there is a dramatic price in choosing not to play the blame game. The applause was muted (though not the man's) partly because the play offers no opinion on the events it portrays.
You could level a similar criticism to the one that was said of the Hollywood movie Charlie Wilson’s War, which, like Blood and Gifts, is also concerned with how America opposed the Soviets in Afghanistan and, like the play, makes oddly few judgments as to whether America’s policy was ultimately a good or bad thing. Though at least the play connects the past to the present.
“Who can I trust?” asks Rogers’ hero, CIA station chief James Warnock (Lloyd Owen), whose job in Pakistan is to direct American aid to the Afghan resistance. “Who can I build up without worrying he’s gonna switch sides and start using weapons on us?”
“Christ,” says his hard-drinking British counterpart Simon Craig (Adam James), “what a nightmare that would be.”
It is one of the few exchanges in this play that implies the policy to arm those who were then known as the Mujahedin, and are now called the Taliban, might not have been very wise.
The design by Ultz is also muted. It largely consists of the kind of dividers that are used in open-plan offices. At best it is a functional if bland way of vaulting the action from the Middle East to America, where Domesthenes Chrysan’s proud, Muslim Afghan warlord turns out to have all the necessary smarts when dealing with a Jesus-loving Senator Birch (Duncan Bell), on whose support the fight depends.
Rogers has a lot of fun with national character while avoiding stereotype, particularly with the relationship between Owen’s deadpan Jim and James’s irreverent Brit, who bitterly resents the privations of working for Her Majesty’s Government, but whose loyalty is never in doubt.
And that is one of the most interesting insights here. You might expect spies in some far-off, God-forsaken (or Godly) land to be as jaded about the cause they fight for as the cause they fight against. Even Matthew Marsh’s world-weary KGB agent Dimitri maintains a love of Russia in the face of his masters’ blunders. But Rogers shows that ideology survives the most caustic cynicism.
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