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THEATRE Lessons from history


policy and racial politics – are addressed by a pair of plays being staged in London by the- atres that have been crucial in encouraging the work of these dramatists. Blood and Gifts is that unusual beast: a British premiere of an American play, a sit- uation created by the fact the National gave a major production to a previous piece by the young writer J.T. Rogers – The Overwhelming. That was a slick, thoughtful thriller about the international response to the Rwandan massacres, and Blood and Gifts is an extension both of the genre and of the political concerns. The play dramatises a joint United Kingdom and United States intervention in Afghanistan, although not the one that the audience might expect to see. Expanded from a provocative playlet Rogers wrote for the Kilburn Tricycle’s The Great Game, an excel- lent portmanteau project on the history of Afghanistan, the drama is set between 1981 and 1991, with the central characters being a CIA agent and his MI6 counterpart – James Warnock (Lloyd Owen) and Simon Craig (Adam James) – as they covertly conspire with Pakistan’s ISI (Inter-Intelligences Service) to support, with cash and weapons, the mujahideen fighters who are opposing the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. The playwright’s decision to enter the story of Afghanistan and the West at this stage is usefully disorientating: how strange to be watching a story in which, for most of its length, mentions of “Bush” refer to neither of the two presidents but to Ronald Reagan’s VP. And this depiction of the way in which international alliances shift for contemporary ends does offer a fascinating context for observers of the state of relations between the UK-US alliance and Pakistan, Afghanistan and Russia now. But my suspicion (confirmed by the BBC’s


John Simpson, who reviewed the play with me on Radio 4’s Front Row) was that Rogers had dangerously simplified the politics of Afghanistan. Although the Taliban clearly

wo of the most urgent aspects of contem- porary American culture – its military

ingeniously conjures up locations from the Pakistan frontiers through the Irish Embassy in Islamabad to an impromptu race- track in a refugee camp. Among the cast, Matthew Marsh is magnetic as a Chekhovian Soviet diplomat.

Blood and Gifts: dangerous simplifications? Demosthenes Chrysan as an Afghan warlord

sheltered al-Qaeda, they were movements with different and even opposite aims: the Taliban were protectionists obsessed only with shaping their own nation, while bin Laden’s fighters craved the rearrangement of the whole world. In Rogers’ scheme, though, the mujahideen, Taliban and al-Qaeda are the same people, creating a neat conspiracy theory in which the Western nations are entirely responsible for the later attacks on them.

Rogers also inserts a perplexing subtext in which every major character has some kind of significant relationship with parenthood: a pregnant wife, infertility and IVF, a trouble - some adolescent, a dead child and so on. Whether it’s a senator meeting a mujahid or a Russian spy chatting with a British one, everyone chats about their kids or lack of them. My fear – especially as the play was developed and work-shopped in the US, where audiences can be resistant to foreign protag- onists – is that this is intended as a sentimentalising and humanising gesture: an equivalent of Sting’s noisome Cold War ballad that asserted “I think the Russians love their children too”.

But, despite all these faults in the text, all the other aspects of the evening are brilliantly achieved: Howard Davies’ tense and fluid direction comes as close as is possible to put- ting a thriller movie on the stage, Ultz’s design


8 - 12 November 2010 Liturgy of the Hours Sister Mary Bride OSB

For further details contact the Booking Secretary on 020 8447 8233 Providence Convent, 8 Oakthorpe Road, Palmers Green, London N13 5UH

30 | THE TABLET | 2 October 2010

Clybourne Park is the second play by the American actor- dramatist, Bruce Norris, to be seen at the Royal Court, fol- lowing his savage comedy of middle- class family manners, The Pain and the Itch. Its successor also ends with a send-up of yuppie attitudes but has a broader focus

because of its ingenious structure. The two acts of Clybourne Park take place in the same bungalow in Chicago but five decades have passed during the interval and seven main actors are playing completely dif- ferent characters in the second half. When the curtain first lifts, it’s 1959 and

Russ and Bev, a white couple, are preparing to move out of the neighbourhood, largely because “Negroes” (as they were then called) are beginning to occupy the houses as resi- dents rather than as domestic help. They have sold their own house to a black family. Karl, a local community leader, visits with an openly racist plea to Russ and Bev not to cooperate in the perceived destruction of the neighbourhood. Like the one discussed above, the play has some uneasy features: the subplot of the loss of the couple’s son in the Korean War feels too much an echo of Miller’s All My Sons, and giving the main racist a deaf-mute wife seems designed only to establish him as a hypocrite, when everything about his character as writ- ten, and compellingly played by Martin Freeman well outside his usual cute dupe zone, suggests that he would have been equally intolerant of disability. But the coup de théâtre after the gin and tonics is bold and effective: now it’s 2009, in Obama’s America, and two white liberals are moving into the now black area with plans to destroy the dilapidated house and raise its tone and value through their architectural reinvention. Officially, racism has been defeated but – through jokes and comments and misunderstandings – it becomes clear that hysteria has repeated itself, the second time as farce. In common with Blood and Gifts, Clybourne Park may sometimes be guilty of forcing complex history into neat theatrical patterns but, though they are over-schematic, it’s good to have these American plays over here.

Mark Lawson

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