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Review Round-up: Critics Bought by Blood & Gifts

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The contemporary conflict in Afghanistan may be a daily feature of the news bulletins, but JT RogersBlood and Gifts, playing in the National's Lyttelton Theatre, looks at an earlier war and suggests that current problems can be traced back to an earlier struggle.

Set in 1991, the play focuses on the covert American attempt to fund and arm an Afghan rebel group in its resistance against the Soviets. CIA operative, James Warnock (Lloyd Owen) forges a strong alliance with one Afghan warlord – but in arming this man against the Russians, Warnock and the CIA (not to mention the British) ultimately train and fund their future enemies.

Blood and Gifts is expanded from a shorter play that Rogers wrote for The Great Game season at The Tricycle Theatre, Kilburn and is directed by Howard Davies. The production continues in rep until 2 November 2010 at the National's Lyttelton Theatre.

  • Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (four stars) – "A shorter version of this play about the Americans…was part of the Tricycle’s Great Game: Afghanistan project last year. Now, commissioned by the Lincoln Center in New York … Blood and Gifts by American playwright JT 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... 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…an American fund-raiser, diplomatic parties and the CIA inner sanctum."
  • Michael Billington in the Guardian (four stars) – "JT Rogers is that rare creature: an American dramatist who writes about global issues... Blood and Gifts is a compelling political thriller that exposes the naivety and arrogance that contributed to the current tragic impasse... One problem is that Rogers views events with the advantage of hindsight which lends much of the action a self-conscious irony. But, for the most part, he overcomes that obstacle and immerses us in events ... In the end, the play is a lament for America's tragic innocence... Lloyd Owen brings out excellently the myopic decency and limited historical vision of the hapless Warnock. Demosthenes Chrysan as the rebel leader, Matthew Marsh as the burly Russian spy and Adam James as an English motormouth also provide exemplary support... Rogers grippingly explores the public world and the fatal consequences of America's anti-Soviet obsession."
  • Fiona Mountford in the Evening Standard (five stars) – "Anyone who reads the news from Afghanistan and wonders how we got into this mess in the first place would do well to see this outstanding new work from American playwright JT Rogers. It's the most clear-eyed dramatic assessment to date of the current situation, yet its focus is not the present day... Rogers has made two particularly fine decisions. The first is to leaven this complex subject with judicious dashes of wit. The second is to replay the Great Game, that centuries-old struggle for power in the region, via three secret servicemen of key nationalities: American, British and Russian. James (Lloyd Owen, giving a lead performance of flinty impressiveness), Simon (Adam James) and Dmitri (Matthew Marsh) realise the compromises they’re forced to make in the national interest but are committed enough to persevere anyway."
  • Charles Spencer in The Telegraph (three stars) – Last year the Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn staged The Great Game, a 12-hour marathon of specially commissioned short plays... One of the best plays in the cycle was JT RogersBlood and Gifts... Rogers has now expanded his original short play into a full-length drama… It’s ingeniously constructed, and as a Cold War espionage drama in which spooks from the American, British, Russian and Pakistani secret services plot, feud and jockey for power and influence, the piece certainly works well as an entertaining, well-plotted thriller... Nevertheless, this strikes me as the wrong play at the wrong time. What’s surely needed now isn’t a piece set several decades ago, but an-up-to the minute account of what's happening on the ground in Afghanistan now…The decent CIA operative, James Warnock, is seen doing deals with a group of Afghan freedom fighters, but religiously at least they are moderates... The normally superb director Howard Davies directs a slick production but can find little emotional depth in the play... Lloyd Owen gives a compelling performance as the committed, guilt-haunted CIA man... But this play, intelligent, well-written and admirably acted though it is, feels like an opportunity lost."
  • Libby Purves in The Times (four stars) – "We begin as any spook story should, with a bleak airport lounge in Islamabad, 1981, and a tubby dead-eyed Russian who unnervingly knows your name…The best way to describe the play is to imagine that John le Carré collaborated with Yes, Prime Minister…Moments of pure comic relief run alongside a knowing irony…Lightness can be born of absurdity, even when the absurdity smells of death…The very name of Afghanistan sinks the heart: the news frustrates us, the cruel fragmented chaos of resentments wearies us to a shrug. We turn away. So let theatre – the realm of imagination, obliqueness and artful seduction – refresh our vision …It could have been a dull, historical sermon, yet it grips entirely…Lloyd Owen’s Jim, heart of the play, reveals increasing humanity; and there is final warmth in his encounters with the pompous, dignified, crafty, desperate warlord Abdullah… Yet beneath it lies always an undertow of real and messy lives, informing and obstructing the still messier international meddling."
  • Claire Allfree in the Metro (three stars) - JT Rogers’ play first appeared as part of the Tricycle’s 2009 Great Game season. Yet while it now expands on the US’s military support for Pakistan’s ISI and the Afghan warlords during the 1980s Soviet occupation, it feels content to retread history rather than shed new light. CIA operative Jim Warnock, haunted by past experiences in Iran, is determined to for the right thing in Afghanistan and help those who have helped him. His somewhat implausible, single-minded idealism represents the human face of the US impulse to reduce conflicts to ideological struggles between freedom and barbaric repression... Rogers' script indulges a vein of sentimentality but by stressing the blood ties that bind us, he also underscores the multi-factional nature of modern warfare. Lloyd Owen is a sympathetic Warnock... Howard Davies directs with customary pace but you wish Rogers had taken the argument forward instead of merely looking back.

    - Elizabeth Davis

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