Lyttelton Theatre, London SE1
Opened 14 September, 2010

When The Tricycle’s mammoth programme The Great Game: Afghanistan returned this summer (prior to an American tour which has just begun in Washington) it lacked one of its original components, as the National Theatre had secured J T Rogers’ play about American involvement in the anti-Soviet Afghan insurgency of the 1980s. That piece can now be seen in expanded form; truth to tell, Rogers’ one-act version always seemed to be trying to fit a quart into a pint pot.
In some ways, the play verges on the stereotypical. The viewpoint character is the noble, principled American Jim Warnock who, as CIA station head in Pakistan, tries to keep things square between the Pakistani ISI who are channelling funding and weapons to the mujahideen, his British counterpart, the fighters themselves and his political and intelligence masters, and above all between his own principles, his more personal concerns and Realpolitik. The Brit, in turn, is out of one of Graham Greene’s less extreme stories: knowledgeable, indeed sometimes with a better perspective than Jim, but liable to say the wrong thing especially in the company of Irish whiskey. Some of the mujahideen, whilst deploring foreign interference, ask Jim about the lyrics to “Hotel California” or request tapes by Duran Duran and Tina Turner. Even the production’s own score by Marc Teitler has a sound to remind one of the extent to which John Barry seemed to have written the soundtrack to the entire Cold War.
But this is as good a path through the subject as any. Rogers’s criticisms are even-handed, and ultimately extend even to Jim himself. If your enemy’s enemy is your friend, but everyone is everyone else’s enemy, where does that leave you and your own trustworthiness? Howard Davies’ production is elegantly staged on a modular Ultz set, with Lloyd Owen leading an 18-strong cast in a finely judged performance as Jim: someone with whom we can sympathise yet stop short of overlooking or forgiving his errors. This is the kind of steady-gazing, publicly engaged play that David Hare used to write before he became too conscious of his own status as a commentator. It ends in 1989, after the Soviet withdrawal but without an exit strategy in sight... or, as The Eagles put it, you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.
Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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