When the personal gets political: Blood and Gifts at the National Theatre, Lyttelton

A drama in that which is silenced is that which speaks loudest

(photo Richard Hubert Smith)

Blood and Gifts, J T Rogers’ new play about the American, anti-Soviet involvement in Afghanistan from 1981-1991, is complex and disorientating. If you’re not familiar with the historical intricacies of the conflict, it takes some concentration to orientate yourself.

The play is disorientating too in its structure and staging. It’s odd to have so many and rapidly changing sets. This is not a criticism; Ultz’s sliding jigsaw of a set means that all changes are brilliantly executed, but their almost filmic style means we are constantly shifting location and that, consequently, we do not identify any one scenario as home.

The action centres around the work of CIA agent James Warnock, who has built up an emotional defecit from his previous guilt-ridden involvement in Iran. This means that he is willing to go the extra mile for Abdullah Khan, his Afghan asset, and Lloyd Owen perfectly evokes the steely independence necessary for Warnock to inhabit his high-powered position.

What is perhaps one of the most interesting things about this play is that there are, apart from the comic but moreorless incidental role of the Staffer, no women. Perhaps it’s out-moded to expect the political hardness of a play to be balanced by scenes of personal or emotional consequence, but here the personal is so coloured by the political that is even becomes an allegory for it.

As Warnock leaves Afghanistan, the death of Abdullah Khan’s son is cruelly swapped with the announcement that Warnock’s wife has borne him a son of his own. There is a sense of almost inevitable theft; the Americans cclear off (for the the being) and go home, whilst the Khan and his people are left to clear up and to face the absences that are the consequences of conflict.

Warnock and his British counterpart, Simon Craig, are not just changed by war and their covert dealings; they become them. The word ‘sacrifice’ is used several times, but this seems to be an understatement. Often (though not exclusively), it is not a sacrifice that is being made, but a choice – an expression of preference. Michael Billington has described the ‘play’s investigation of its characters’ private lives’ as ‘a touch cursory’, but I wonder whether this is not the point. These men choose to live in an environment that provides them with an accelerated pace of life and inflated responsibility, and are bored by women. Their wives are mere tools; they serve a facilitatory role as procreative ovens and deliver their husbands a product which transcends any language barrier. In an infectious culture of male primacy, a son is the prized universal signifier of masculinity.

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