J T Rogers’s Blood and Gifts was initially presented in shortened form as part of the Tricycle Theatre’s The Great Game season and has now been expanded into a full-length production for the National Theatre. Set between 1981 and 1991, the play shows how US and British efforts to combat the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan led them to promote, fund and arm Islamic resistance movements within the country. As such, it is a timely reminder of the extent to which the problems that Western imperialism is now facing are of its own creation.
Rogers skilfully creates an atmosphere of paranoia and shifting loyalties. This is a slick political thriller in which the tension of a proxy war is combined with a generous dose of knowing humour. The portrayal of the protagonist, a CIA operative, as essentially well intentioned seems naive. But a powerful and restrained performance from Lloyd Owen certainly convinces, conveying the predicament of an honourable man trapped within a maze of conflicting imperial interests.
Inevitably, the current situation in Afghanistan is never far from the audience’s mind. Rogers encourages this. There are comments on the nature of the “special relationship” between Britain and the US. The British ambassador makes joking references to what might happen if the weapons the West had paid for came to be used against them. More movingly, the Russian ambassador’s anger at those within the Kremlin who prefer to allow bloodshed to continue rather than face the shame of admitting defeat is all too relevant to today.
However, these important points are undermined by Rogers’s refusal to truly confront the issue of Islamism. The real-life figure of CIA-funded warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar dominates the play. There are references to his many atrocities throughout, but neither he nor his supporters ever actually appear onstage.
The only Afghans who Rogers is willing to portray are “moderate” Islamists. In a play where all the characters, from CIA operative to Russian spy, are presented in a sympathetic light, to simply leave the more extreme elements offstage seems to imply that they defy explanation. Rogers is falling back on tired stereotypes of “good” and “bad” Muslims.
The cast is uniformly excellent, and the play is certainly to be admired for seeking to remind people of the extent to which the US and Britain are responsible for the rise of extremism within Afghanistan. But by leaving the extremist voice out of the play, Rogers characterises it in terms of an unknowable other, an evil, incomprehensible force. In doing so, he risks legitimising the Afghanistan war itself.
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