The first preview of J T Rogers Blood and Gifts at The National yesterday evening. It began life last year in a shorter version, commissioned as part of The Great Game The Tricycle's season of plays about Afghanistan and has now been developed into a full scale work - interestingly it'll play New York at the end of its London run.
Set in the eighties the piece explores the American and British role in counter insurgency operations against the Soviet invasion and traces the West's relationship with the pre-Taliban Mujaheddin fighters, tasked with defending the mountainous Pakistani border from the Russian advance. Inevitably the play provides a history lesson and is heavy on exposition in its early stages, but quickly settles into a fast paced thriller that explores the knife edge calculations carried out at the sharp end of international diplomacy where no decision is perfect and often the choice is about doing the least damaging thing. The best scene was set in CIA headquarters where Jim Warnock, the American operative, played straight by Lloyd Owen, and his boss, the forthright Walter Barnes, impressively nuanced by Simon Kunz, openly debate the consequences of action or in action in somebody elses conflict. Suddenly the play felt contemporary.
In someways the scope is overambitious and many of the characters are presented as cultural or national ciphers rather than as fully developed protagonists in their own right. The sub plot, involving the struggles of distance parenting, felt a rather obvious and unnecessary device to bring some humanity into the political positioning. If anything the play is a morality tale of Shavian proportion and the complicated dilemma over the need and right to intervene in a foreign war didn't, in this instance, need the padding distraction of a personal metaphor.
So are there links between the arming of the anti-Soviet freedom fighters by the West thirty years ago, and the subsequent emergence of the reviled Taliban? Maybe. But for all its striving this isn't the play to seal that thesis. Instead Rogers reminds us of the pragmatic nature of allegiance albeit dressed up as an analysis of the evolution of a specific conflict.