The first scene of Blood and Gifts opens with the Lyttleton stage squeezed vertically by a lowered lighting rig to resemble the narrow strip of a cinema screen. The bland beige box of the set is simply augmented with a row of fixed plastic seats to represent the arrivals lounge of Islamabad international airport in the early 1980s, as an arriving CIA agent is met by the friendly local KGB representative who casually lets him know that his cover has been comprehensively blown even before his feet have touched the ground.
It’s a scene which sums up a lot about JT Rogers’ play. For all of its broad sweep and reach, covering a decade with dozens of characters and multiple locations, it’s not an especially theatrical evening. The set efficiently waxes and wanes into various rigidly geometrical layouts with a minimum of dressing to suggest different environments and the costumes are realist and look convincingly researched but there’s not really a striking or memorable image to be found. The staging and dialogue are also entirely linear and straightforward; there’s nothing about the play which wouldn’t work equally effectively on the radio.
Characters are only brought on and developed as far as they have a point to make about the disastrous history of Afghanistan in the last thirty years. A sub-plot about the impact on the family life – and souls – of the Westerners who find themselves lost to the maelstrom of conflict is brutally effective but also feels a bit perfunctory and more spoken of than felt (there is only one woman with a speaking part, and it’s a one scene piece of comic relief. All of the other women in the large cast are literally reduced to being cocktail party dressing).
None of which is to say that it’s not an interesting and provocative evening. As a disquisition of history and politics, it exerts a grisly fascination within its very narrow focus. We see every major actor in the conflict through one emblematic representative: the committed CIA agent who is dedicated to bloodying the nose of the Russian bear, the British agent cynically appalled by his own country’s legacy and modern redundancy on the world stage, the Afghan fighting for a web of reasons which defy simple reduction, the Senator who sees an opportunity to advance a confused agenda of Christian militarism. Rogers lays out in a bleakly convincing narrative how everyone’s different motivations, and a stew of notions of honour, justice, faith and vengeance, combined to create a disaster the effects of which would ultimately reach so far beyond the country they’re ostensibly fighting over.
It’s all convincing, effective and thoroughly dispiriting. The evening, though, suffers from its own relentlessness. There’s too little of the human in it; we never really see the victims – on any side – of the action. This is old school history – the doings of great men pinned up for the world to see and to reflect upon – and a worthy play which deserves to be seen, but it never really comes fully alive.