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BWW Reviews: BLOOD AND GIFTS, The National Theatre, September 14 2010

The peoples who live in the country now called Afghanistan order their society by the concept of quam. Though sometimes simplified into Western ideas of tribes or kinship, quam is much more nebulous, resisting easy explanation except in one crucial way. In a land of internecine feuding, when an outsider appears the overarching principle of quam kicks in - "me against my brother, but me and my brother against a stranger." JT Rogers' Blood and Gifts, which had its world premiere on the 14 September 2010, explores the 1979 Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan and spans ten years in the life of CIA man James Warnock, as he learns that the more he finds out about the shepherds waging war successfully against the army that defeated the Nazis, the less he knows.

Warnock (beautifully played by Lloyd Owen) provides the audience with a central point around which relationships build and unravel, as the bodies pile up in the dusty streets and deserts. Onstage for the duration of the play, Warnock is joined by characters that are just a bit too indebted to central casting: the cynical Russian Gromov, grudgingly doing his masters' bidding; the English spook Craig who knows everything and everyone, but can achieve nothing alone; the noble warrior chief Khan, the horse Warnock backs; the ambitious Pakistani colonel Afridi, skimming enough to fund a flashy Jag; the world-weary CIA boss Barnes, who sees Warnock torn between love and duty, but refuses to help; and the preacher-senator Birch, with a bible in one hand and a gun in the other. In using these very recognisable character types, JT Rogers gives the audience a firm foundation on which he develops the play's two main themes.

The play's first theme is trust. Warnock has to gain the trust of the Afghans, and not just any Afghans, the ones who can deliver the information he needs. In turn, they must trust him to get the weapons they need to carry the war to the Soviets. In his meetings with Afridi and Craig, each trusts the other just far enough to get to the next meeting, but no further. And, from the moment he arrives in Pakistan, Warnock must trust his avuncular KGB counterpart not to have him assassinated. Because the outcome of the war and the consequent rise in radical Islam is known, Rogers has some fun showing the wrongheaded short-sightedness of promoting jihad to score points in a Cold War already petering out.

The second theme is fatherhood. Warnock becomes a second son for warlord Khan, whilst himself failing to become the father he so wants to be; Craig becomes a father, a role that his very English addiction to the violence of the old North-West Frontier dooms; Gromov agonises about his failure to protect his daughter from predatory Moscow boys, the sort of boy he once was; and Barnes advises Warnock to do the right thing by his wife, while making it clear that his country has the greater call on Warnock's idealistic sense of duty - duty fuelled by a betrayal of those whom Warnock left behind after the fall of the Shah of Iran. (And there's just a tiny nod in the direction of the theory that George Bush Jnr's adventurism in Iraq was provoked partly by George Bush Snr's unfinished business in Iraq after the Gulf War of 1990).

In another superb programme, The National Theatre's director, Nicholas Hytner, writes that the NT should "...(have) large scale ambition - physical, emotional and intellectual". Howard Davies' production of Blood and Gifts, which had its world premiere on the 14 September 2010 and runs until 2 November, has that ambition and leaves the audience enlightened about a grubby episode in late-imperialism with consequences very much around us, thirty years after Soviet tanks rolled across the Afghan border and nine years after the Twin Towers fell. 


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