A shorter version of this play about the Americans commandeering the mujahideen as their “ears” in the Pakistan war was part of the Tricycle’s Great Game: Afghanistan project last year.
Now, commissioned by the Lincoln Center in New York and premiered in a stylish, fast-moving production by Howard Davies in the Lyttelton, Blood and Gifts by American playwright J T Rogers has been expanded into an upscale political thriller with a human angle.
Undercover CIA man James Warnock – played with a fine dash and vocal fruitiness by a bespoke-suited Lloyd Owen – believes in the Afghan national cause, tragically losing sight of his own political role as a buffer in the Cold War after the Russian invasion. He hangs out with Afghan chieftan Abdulla Khan (Demosthenes Chrysan) and ends up arming a holy war by mistake.
Reading the programme notes and keeping an eye on the author’s own historical time line is essential here. But a great theme of paternity and rivalry emerges not only between Warnock and Abdullah, but also between Warnock and his scrofulous, hacked-off British opposite number (impetuous Adam James) in MI6 and his devious Russian counterweight (bullish Matthew Marsh).
Ultz’s sleek, functional design of sliding panels and trucks whisks us from Islamabad airport to the poster-daubed streets of Kabul, the mountain lair of the pop song-loving insurgents – it’s like The Desert Song in turbans -- an American fund-raiser, diplomatic parties and the CIA inner sanctum headed up by a certain Walter Barnes (Simon Kunz), not to be confused with tyrannical editor Walter Burns in The Front Page.