Covering the period 1981 to 1991, 'Blood and Gifts' is the story of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan which began in 1979 and ended in a humiliating withdrawal in 1989. It also describes the US involvement in the country at the time, waging what effectively was a proxy war against their communist adversaries.
A shorter version of J T Rogers' play was produced by London's Tricycle Theatre as part of a trilogy about Afghanistan entitled 'The Great Game: Afghanistan'. This is the World première of Rogers' enhanced version of the play.
A landlocked country, Afghanistan is located in a geographically strategic location at what might be described as the crossroads of Asia. It's bordered by Pakistan, Russia, China, and Iran, and has been a source of conflict for centuries.
'Blood and Gifts' focuses on the role of two groups: intelligence agents from The USA, Pakistan, the UK and Russia, and a group of Afghan fighters led by Abdullah Khan (Demosthenes Chrysan). As he arrives at the airport in Pakistan, CIA agent James Warnock (Lloyd Owen) bumps into Soviet agent Dmitri Gromov. It appears an innocent encounter as the two exchange pleasantries, but very quickly we realise that the Moscow Hood (to use a John Le Carré expression) already knows almost as much about the CIA agent as he does himself. From there, the intrigue proceeds apace. The American agent is empowered to provide financial aid to the Afghans in combating the Soviets. Acting as intermediaries are the Pakistanis in the guise of their intelligence service the ISI. And the British act almost as gofers in the shadow of the Americans. We also meet a group of Afghan fighters, led by Khan. Almost as important as winning the war is their desire to acquire the latest pop songs from the West.
Lloyd Owen's Warnock is a CIA agent who's largely in charge of his emotions. He's a cool, commanding type who knows what he wants to achieve and just how to get it. In contrast, Adam James's British agent, Simon Craig, is more emotional and can rarely conceal it. But they are both eclipsed in a sense by Matthew Marsh's Russian spy, Gromov who in spite of his genial and dry humour is top of the intelligence heap, even if he eventually finds himself on the losing side. There's also a wryly humorous performance from Danny Ashok as the military clerk in the Pakistani ISI agency, who has a tendency to make off-the-cuff quips about his superior officer's language: 'Very Noel Coward' he says on one occasion.
J T Roger's absorbing script is intelligent and complex. It's not too difficult, though, to get your brain round the political machinations and intrigue, to understand the plot. What's remarkable about the writing is that we see all parties as human beings and not just pawns, even though that is what they turn out to be when one considers the bigger picture.
Designer Ultz (described in a recent article on the web as 'enigmatic') has devised a set with a kind of chess board quality. Long, sliding doors separate off different areas of the stage, and trucks slide in almost seamlessly from the rear of the stage to form offices in Pakistan and the US. There's also a neat scene with a fence defining the spectator area at a game of Buzkashi (the Afghan national sport).
It's estimated that the United States and Saudi Arabia pumped up to 40 billion dollars into Afghanistan in their attempts to oust the Soviet forces. But the price paid by the Afghan civilian population was rather costlier: between 600, 000 and 2 million people are thought to have been killed. And, of course, civilians in Afghanistan continue to die and suffer to this day. Now, the Soviets have been replaced by the Americans and the British again, at least for the time being. It seems 'The Great Game' continues.
A powerful and intricate piece, 'Blood and Gifts' falls just short of being totally riveting, but it's nevertheless extremely watchable.
"Compelling political thriller...It's a complex, demanding play but one that adds to our understanding of Afghanistan... Rogers grippingly explores the public world and the fatal consequences of America's anti-Soviet obsession."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
Fiona Mountford for The Evening Standard
"Howard Davies directs a slick production but can find little emotional depth in the play."
Charles Spencer for The Daily Telegraph
"A sharp-witted, if somewhat sprawling and repetitive, epic which is now unveiled in Howard Davies's lucid, adroitly marshalled two-and-three-quarter-hour production."
Paul Taylor for The Independent