Playing the Great Game

A new National Theatre play avoids cliché to portray US involvement in Afghanistan

Afghanistan Theatre
Confrontation: Pashtun warriors meet the CIA's Jim Warnock (Lloyd Owen) in "Blood and Gifts"

It is rare for a play to be an elaborate history lesson, factually accurate and a successful drama, all at the same time. Even Shakespeare couldn’t manage to write one. His history plays may be fairly successful dramas but they have more to do with imagination and Tudor propaganda than with historical truth. But recently there have been several new plays produced in this country that have managed this feat. One was David Hare’s The Power of Yes (2009). Another, even better, is Blood and Gifts by the American J. T. Rogers, which has just had its world première at the National Theatre. It is about covert American operations in Afghanistan between 1981 and 1991, in response to the Soviet invasion. In equal parts illuminating and heartbreaking, it is as far as I know historically accurate, or at least truthful. It is also painfully funny at times. The spectacle of ferocious Pashtun warriors in cold mountain fastnesses singing along to decadent Western pop music is both comic and sad.

People expecting bias on such a contentious subject will look in vain. Even the emotional demand of the British station chief in Islamabad for Margaret Thatcher to be dragged from Downing Street in a burqa and stoned is not a conventional case of theatrical Maggie-bashing. It’s an expression of his frustration at the relatively low priority she gave to Britain’s Afghanistan mission. 

The central character of the play is Jim Warnock, a young CIA station chief in Islamabad, superbly played by Lloyd Owen. Arriving at the airport in the opening scene to organise covert funding of Afghan warlords, he is met by an insinuating Russian — in fact, his Soviet opposite number — powerfully played by Matthew Marsh. From the first, they conjure up the suspicion and paranoia that the latest match of the Great Game imposes on them.

What’s powerful about Blood and Gifts is that in all the well-managed torrent of cerebral information, the audience increasingly has a visceral sense of being there and a growing understanding of the main characters, including the emotional British mission chief Simon Craig, the wily Pakistani Brigadier Afridi and the Pashtun tribal leader Abdullah Khan. A real friendship of a distorted kind grows up between the Russian, the American and the Englishman, and covertly between the American and the Pashtun. The writer avoids conventional stereotypes, so the Russian is far from a heartless Soviet apparatchik, but instead a thoughtful wit; the Englishman is not a cold, lock-jawed buffoon, but an emotional eccentric; the Pashtun is not simply a treacherous tribal leader but a man of damaged honour; and the American is not the usual rash, intruding ignoramus, but a sophisticated linguist and a wily operator as well as a brave and decent man, determined to do what is right.

It becomes possible to sympathise with why Afridi is flaunting his corruptly-gotten V8 Jag, why Craig is not really interested in his newborn twins in England, why the honourable American lies to almost everyone, and persuades his Pashtun ally to do the same. For most of them, it is because of their obsession with Afghanistan and the horrors in which they are involved, from the flaying alive of Russian soldiers to the flattening of Afghan villages — an obsessive love begotten by despair upon impossibility. No matter what their intentions, as the Russian says to the American on leaving in 1989: “I fear that [history] will not be kind to you, my friend. I know she will not be kind to me.”  Nor has history been kind to Afghanistan. Hindsight makes this moment particularly poignant for the audience.

Clybourne Park, a new play at the Royal Court, is also partly historical, also about a painful subject — housing and race in America — and also funny at times.  In the first part, set in a white American suburb in 1959, the local community is thrown into turmoil by the decision of one family to sell their house to a black couple. Racist neighbours in the community association do their best, but fail, to stop the sale. In the second part, 50 years later, the tables are turned. By 2009, the neighbourhood is black and a white couple wants to buy the same house and gets planning permission to raze and rebuild it.  But the residents’ committee is now black and largely inclined to refuse, and perhaps to enjoy refusing. 

In the right hands, this scenario offers great opportunities for sophisticated black comedy, if I can put it that way, about unspoken racial tensions, as opposed to the sort people are usually prepared to discuss. Bruce Norris, the American playwright, does indeed write good one-liners and backchat, and his overall perception of the hypocrisies underlying American racism on all sides seems truthful to me. The cast is good and Martin Freeman (Tim of The Office) is so convincing as the repellent pious neighbour, arguing that the trouble with coloured folks is that they don’t ski, that he is unrecognisable. There is a spectacular showdown about offensive jokes in the second act, between black residents and politically correct white newcomers, that should be hilarious. Somehow, it didn’t quite work for me, though it seemed to do so for most of the audience.

Nor somehow did Deathtrap at the Noel Coward Theatre. It is a self-conscious comic thriller, written in 1978, which pays obvious homage to its great predecessors, particularly Sleuth. The set is perfection, the plot is genuinely surprising, and once or twice very frightening, the dialogue is often very sharp and Simon Russell Beale as the ageing thriller writer who might commit murder for a new plot is as mesmerising as ever. All the same, I found it a bit heavy-handed, but again, the audience seemed to love it.