Last year, one of the more interesting of the short plays about Afghanistan included in the Tricycle's wonderful cycle THE GREAT GAME AFGHANISTAN, was J.T. Rogers' BLOOD AND GIFTS, a short play about the relationship of an American CIA operative and an Afghan warlord during the years of the war against Russian occupation. The American saw his relationship with the warlord as a friendship though that was the American way of trying to control an uncontrollable situation. Ultimately the warlord, once relatively secular, realized that Islamic fundamentalism would be the gavanizing force to taking contorol of the country when the Americans lost interest after the Soviet defeat. By focusing on two characters, Rogers made the play dramatic rather than a staged history lesson.
Now he has expanded a 25 minute play into a two hour and forty-five minute epic with lots of characters. The American is still center stage, but we have long scenes with his Soviet couterpart in Pakistan, the outspoken British operative there, the head of the Pakistani secret service through which Americans are funneling weapons to the Afghan resistance and who have their own Islamist agenda, and American senators and bureaucrats back home in Washington. The subject is fascinating, but this sprawling play is no longer dramatic. It's too long by at least half an hour -- many repetitive scenes could be cut. The many characters tend to be representatives and mouthpieces of countries and points of view rather than people we care about.
Howard Davies is a wonderful director, but the play also suffers from an overblown National Theatre production. Many large scene changes slow down the action. The play would have been better in a much simpler production in the smaller Cottesloe. We wait for wagons to roll on and off and walls to roll in before a scene can start. The play really doesn't demand so much spectacle. Unfortunately the cavernous Lyttleton Theatre does require scenery. The cast is good, but Lloyd Owen, a wonderful actor, suffers the most from not having a character to play. He is onstage almost constantly, but all Rogers has given him is a stolid, emotionally constipated American. Does he believe what he says or is he a total cynic? He wants to avoid another debacle like Iran in 1979, but we don't know enough about him to know why this matters so much. His Russian, Afghan and British counterparts are better drawn as characters.
At the end, the Afghani freedom fighters we wanted to free from the Russians are screaming "Allah Akbar." The point of the play is that American blindness and obsession with the Soviets led to the Islamic Revolution we are now dealing with. The shorter, earlier version made that point in twenty-five minutes. We have a lot more detail now, but no play. J.T. Rogers' last play at the National, THE OVERWHELMING gave us real characters placed in an African mess they didn't understand. It mixed the personal and the policital brilliantly. One misses the personal here.
BLOOD AND GIFTS by J.T. Rogers, directed by Howard Davies. National Theatre Lyttleton Theatre. September 13, 2010.