Review – Blood and Gifts, National Theatre

Much to my disappointment, Blood and Gifts turned out not to be about someone whose birthday is on halloween. It is, in fact, about American and British support for the Afghan insurgency against the Russians in the 1980s. Bottom line: not a roaring success in retrospect.

The characters are mostly ersatz boilerplates filched from every spy movie I’ve ever seen: the impassioned CIA operative who turns out to care too much; the constantly late, alcoholic MI6 man; the wives who don’t understand; the local fighters you can’t trust; the superiors who won’t listen; the overweight Russian spy with a bad tie and a bad case of pessimism.

The staging is very National Theatre: dozens of sets whizzing on and off and up and down like curtains; cast of about thirty with eight speaking roles; performances fine, accents believable, costumes good, everybody faced the audience. Nothing to complain about.

But not much to get too excited about either. The plot both feels over-simplistic (surely there are more than two guys leading the Anglo-American response to the USSR in Afghanistan?) and over-complicated (it’s difficult to get too excited about fictionalised arguments over which mujahidin commander gets support at any given point in the plot). The supposed friendships between the characters also feel forced. Would Lloyd Owen’s CIA man really be so chummy with Matthew Marsh’s Kremlin spy? Why is he the only person not to see the final betrayal from his pet Afghan warlord coming a mile off?

This isn’t a bad play, and it isn’t badly performed or badly directed, but it never really leaves the ground. Three stars at best.