Blood and Gifts, National Theatre, NT Lyttelton, September 2010Posted on 14 September 2010
On September 9th, 2001 Ahmed Shah Massoud (aka The Lion of Panjshir) was assassinated by two suicide bombers — Al Qaeda agents posing as journalists. Two days later more suicide bombers crashed planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The rest is history, as they say . . . meaning history that we remember. What we don’t remember is what led up to these events in 2001, and more particularly what led up to the Soviet retreat from Afghanistan in 1989 to 1991, and the subsequent evacuation of American interest in the country. That’s what this new play by J T Rogers is about.
The characters are fictitious, but true to history, and various historical figures, such as the Northern Alliance leader Massoud, and the viciously fundamentalist warlord Gulbudddin Hekmatyar, are mentioned in passing. I particularly liked Lloyd Owen as the young CIA agent James Warnock, who understood what was going on, and was able to some extent to influence the raising and spending of American funds. His British counterpart, MI6 agent Simon Craig, was flamboyantly portrayed by Adam James as a brilliant chap who had no money to spend, even on his own transportation, and fell rather too easily into an irascible mood, catalysed by alcohol. His criticisms of Mrs. Thatcher’s tight-fisted policy with money for MI6 were trenchant, and made a stark contrast to the well-lubricated CIA machine, where the issues were of policy rather than lack of interest by the powers at home. The CIA tried calling the shots and circumventing the ISI (Pakistan’s InterServices Intelligence) by supporting another warlord, rather than Hekmatyar, but in the end Craig was right about not trusting anyone, “All this — it’s chess, Jim. Never good to get attached to one particular piece”. We found that out the hard way following the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan, and we ought to realise it now with the ground prepared for a second Taliban takeover.
Among the large cast, Demosthenes Chrysan was very good as the fictitious Abdullah Khan, an Afghan warlord who looked rather like the real life Ismail Khan, one-time governor of Herat. His son Saeed was well played by Philip Arditti, and Matthew Marsh played the KGB agent Dmitri Gromov as a very sympathetic character. The ISI head, Colonel (later Brigadier) Afridi was played as decisive and smug by Gerald Kyd, leading an organisation that was, and still is, trying to hold Pakistan together by promoting Islamists to fight battles around their borders, but it’s a doomed strategy, just as was the American strategy of supporting Islamist extremists against the Soviet Union. You feed a monster to fight your perceived enemies, but when they are defeated the monster turns on you to feed its increased appetite.
Good direction by Howard Davies, clear simple designs by Ultz, and atmospheric music by Marc Teitler. If you don’t really know the chain of events, this play is a good history lesson, and if you do remember all this stuff, it’s well worth seeing if only to feel yourself trapped within the frustrations of the secret agents. They try to avoid being pawns of the ISI, as well as battling the personal frustrations of being barely in contact with their pregnant wives, yet unable to share the pain that their postings put them in. The play ends as 1991 turns into 1992 and the Americans leave for home — I await the sequel.
Performances continue until November 2.