How can a play be well acted, well directed, well designed, full of truthful political insight into recent history and yet ultimately lacking in drama? In this new play at the National Theatre on the Lyttelton stage, American playwright JT Rogers tells the story of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan from the early 1980s (the Soviet Union sent in troops at the end of 1979) to the early 1990s, when Moscow withdrew its troops. It was a Cold War victory for the West which hastened the collapse of the Soviet regime but led to horrendous consequences.
We know now something that the characters in the play don't -- that the U.S. sponsorship of the mujahideen plunged Afghanistan into chaos and bloodshed after the Soviet union left, and led ultimately to the rise of the Taliban and al-Qaida. Rogers doesn't need to trace the story further towards the present, because the dramatic irony is created by the audience's hindsight. We know what happened next, the characters don't. The events are in the recent past for us, and the link to the present is as clear as it would have been for an Elizabethan audience watched Shakespeare's histories.
We no longer see any link to our recent past in the story of the Wars of the Roses, but Richard III still fascinates us, generation after generation, because of Shakespeare's ability to create real drama out of character and plot. Unfortunately, Blood and Gifts, while a competent example of historical documentary writing, lacks the dramatic X-factor. Its main character is James Warnock, a CIA officer played by Lloyd Owen, whom we see arriving in Islamabad at the opening of the play. His relations with his main Afghan contact Abdullah Khan (Demosthenes Chrysan) make up the core of the play, but we also see him with his British SIS counterpart Simon Craig (Adam James), with the smooth and venal Colonel Afridi (Gerald Kyd) from Pakistan's SIS and with the KGB's man in Islamabad Dmitri Gromov (Matthew Marsh). Rogers tries to give his characters more depth by having them talk about their missing wives and families, but this kind of writing-by-numbers doesn't work. The actors are uniformly excellent, and so is Howard Davies' direction, which zips the play along. But the characters remain shallow and never really come alive. The dialogue between them doesn't ring true; although it's all founded in historical research, it's all text and no subtext, and much of it, especially in the first half, is designed to convey exposition to the audience.
The second half moves the location to Washington, and the best scene is between Warnock and his boss Walter Barnes. There's less need for exposition here, and the characters seem to be interacting with each other rather than conveying facts to the audience. There's another good scene in which Abdullah Khan is brought to Washington to meet an influential U.S. senator. The cultural gap between the Afghans and the Americans widens, despite the efforts of Warnock to create a bond of trust. Afghan guerrillas reveal themselves as fans of Duran Duran, as keen on hi-fi equipment as on Stinger missiles. But ultimately the play remains devoid of drama. Because Warnock is on stage throughout the play, we see everything through his eyes -- a mistake Shakespeare never made in his history plays. The tragedy of Afghanistan, which I witnessed briefly as a reporter shortly after the Soviet invasion from the relatively safe surroundings of the Kabul Intercontinental hotel, is one of Shakespearean dimensions. But too many of the key characters in this story remain off stage and never appear. I left the theatre nostalgic not just for Shakespeare but also for Brecht and George Bernard Shaw. Both of them were tendentious, partial and lacked even basic respect for historical truth -- but they knew how to create real drama, not docudrama.