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