Lloyd Owen, Matthew Marsh, Adam James, Demosthenes Chrysan, Gerald Kydd
The much neglected spy fiction writer Eric Ambler, whom John Le Carre once called “the source from which we all draw” would routinely populate his later novels with stereotypical communists.|
To a man portly, red-faced, moustachioed bluffers, who would slap other characters slightly-too-forcefully on the back with one hand, while necking undrinkable vodka with the other. The trick Ambler pulled off however, was to delicately weld these characters into an infinintely murky and sophisticated network of subterfuge, and, a socialist himself, draw the picture of the state and its capitalist Imperialist endeavours abroad with such vivid detail you forgave him his rough portraiture.
Written by the American playwright JT Rogers, Blood and Gifts comes to the National expanded from its outing at last year’s Tricycle Afghanistan season, The Great Game. It is set in the Central Asian country during the Soviet occupation of the 1980s, and follows James, the CIA agent (played with clipped and worn familiarity by Lloyd Owen) tasked with the covert assistance of the Afghan Warlord Abdullah (a graceful Demosthenes Chrysan) and tagging alongside him Adam James playing the hapless and incorrigibly gung-ho MI6 agent Simon.
The choice to historicise the conflict that last month saw foreign military deaths pass 2,000, and civilian deaths spike as much as 31% on last year’s figures, seems an interesting one. Rogers’ intention here was presumably to expose some of the groundwork that was in place prior to the bloody chaos of “liberation” in 2001, and it does chronicle the CIA’s involvement in the arming of Pashtun rebel Warlords, the religious politics of those insurgents, and the role of the Pakistani Intelligence service. But if chronicling the road to Helmand ought to be paved with good intentions, here those intentions are unclear. There is a slight superficiality where the heart might be, a nagging emptiness where the play appears to lose faith with its ability to feel its way through the politics, and ends slightly numb and reserved.
The play’s most involved moments come in its dealings with contemporary masculine anxieties. Simon the MI6 officer is a lonely mess, prone to indignant laments which combine hawkish humanitarianism and post-colonial melancholia, and which continually embarrass him. Jim the CIA agent colludes with Simon in loneliness, both absenting themselves from their families for “the lure of certainty, the siren call”. Matthew Marsh plays the KGB agent Dmitri in the custom that Ambler would surely recognise, ebullient, jocund, tense and vibing patriarchal about his daughter back home.
The central motif of the dysfunctional male is well-drawn, aided by the neat and unfussy direction of Howard Davies who continues, as the prestidigator de jure, to be a safe pair of hands endowed with no small amount of artistic dexterity. The crowd scenes are particularly tightly woven, and cleverly compound the characters' alienation. Ultz’s dynamic set design, a sliding flat-packed modular affair, creates an evocation of the administrative hinterlands that is impressively grey and personality free.
That the play pulls back politically with a gentlemanly reserve, a tacit agreement not to shine the searchlight too sweepingly is something of which Ambler would no doubt have disapproved. That it seeks to wield its cardboard characters as rounded humans Ambler would have recognised as a mistake. As the play comes to a close, the emotional climax between Jim and Abdullah lacks affect, and the thing comes tumbling down. Where it had worked as a sort of buddy play, the lines between friendship, politics, history - the very crux of these men’s being-together in the world - get fumbled in a bathetic conclusion.
That great spy writer Graham Greene once divided his works into two categories, his “entertainments” in which “one is primarily interested in having an exciting story, as in a physical action”, and his novels where “one is primarily interested in the characters, and the action plays a minor part.” Blood & Gifts begins to draw a tentative Venn diagram and ends up somewhere off the page.