I am definitely not one who is up to date with current political affairs or has a great understanding for that part of English culture – I know who’s currently in power, have a vague recognition of the differing parties, and realise how the political climate has shifted over the last decade or so. So when I was on my way to see J.T.Rogers’ new play Blood and Gifts set in the eighties, I was sure the plotline of Soviet invasion and selling weapons to Afghanistan would go right over my head.
However, this piece of political realism which combines outstanding acting with an innovative set design featuring multiple locations on moving platforms engaged me as an audience member and inspired me through its technical and performance skills. The lead role, taken on by British/Welsh actor Lloyd Owen, epitomized the American stereotype whilst not overdoing the hero-come-martyr effect of the text. Though the dramatic, emotional out-front pauses of James Warnock reminded me of corny American films, Owen was able to push the play forward, and his performance remained consistent so the audience could follow his journey through the tumult of historical events. Not once did I feel it right to place the blame on Owen’s character for the consequences of the story – throughout he remained sincere and the truest ‘do-gooder’ and it was this earnest approach that made the final dialogue with Abdullah (Demosthenes Chrysan) emotive and almost heart-wrenching.
Supporting Owen were Adam James, the bumbling, cynical Englishman Simon Craig; Philip Arditti playing Saeed whose impressive performance made the end revelation even more devastating; and Demosthenes Chyrsan whose relationship with Owen as Abdullah was at times a strange mix of endearing and sinister. Although it was a play that focused largely on the cultural stereotypes developed over the last thirty years, there was never a moment of commedia or gratuitous racism to express current views – at all points during the story the characters were expressed in a way that was relatable to even those completely oblivious to modern politics.
The design by Ultz was innovative and enhanced the text beautifully. Various sets moved forward and back on the stage on rolling platforms, cut off by sliding walls or windows. The transformation of the space from office to Afghan desert was phenomenal, whilst the moving lighting rig created a sense of claustrophobia in some of the more intense scenes that set off the characters’ dialogue in a very emotive way.
Though I must admit I would never normally have considered this a play to go and see, I’m very glad I went as it was informative both politically and in theatrical style. The actors worked well to portray the various relationships of the play that spanned around about a decade, and the design of set and lighting brought the text to cinematic life.
Blood and Gifts is playing at the National Theatre until 14th November, booking via the National’s website.