JT Rogers has expanded the short play first seen in the Tricycle theatre’s Afghanistan season into this full length drama which explores the power struggle between two superpowers using the Afghan nation as their chess board.
It is 1981, deep in the Cold War, and Ultz’s functional set draws on the era’s penchant for beige as it transforms from airport lounge to office to rural Pakistan. Lloyd Owen plays CIA agent Jim Warnock, America’s man in Pakistan, sent to help the country fend off the Soviets who are invading neighbouring Afghanistan . A highly principled man, he is nevertheless a pragmatist and knows how to play the game. Prevented from crossing into Afghanistan himself, he employs the services of a Mujahedin warlord, Abdullah Khan, to be his eyes and ears on the ground in exchange for American arms. As the years progress and the conflict persists, Rogers’s play shows how entangled allegiances and tribal intricacies make this war vastly more complicated than superpower against superpower. As English MI6 agent Simon Craig tells his American counterpart: “It’s chess Jim” (but not as we know it).
This is an ambitious play, which spans 10 years of history and entwines a fictional story with historical fact. In the context of the current war in Afghanistan it is fascinating, illuminating exactly how complicated and deep-rooted the country’s problems are and how much of it has been caused by western powers. On the fictional level, Rogers centres on the personal difficulties experienced by spooks during the cold war: lengthy periods spent away from home, the pressure put on marital relationships and, ultimately, the personal toll their job takes.
It is, of course, a serious subject matter, but Rogers attempts to engage us through humour as well as drama. As Simon, Adam James has all the best lines as this uncouth, loud-mouth Englishman who has none of the intelligent restraint and togetherness of Warnock; Gerald Kyd plays a self-serving Pakistani colonel who skims the top off American money to buy himself a Jaguar; and Philip Arditti gets some laughs as Kahn’s right-hand-man Saeed, who demands from Warnock not just American rifles but also the latest Duran Duran album.
The play’s central relationship is the one between Warnock and the Afghan warlord Khan, who, over 10 years, form a bond that transcends the conflict. Both are proud men: Demosthenes Chrysan’s Khan is a man whose staunch loyalty to his kin shows why Afghanistan has not been peaceful since, while Owen’s Warnock places himself as a beacon of morality amid the cynical and the self-serving. He is there, he says, to help the Afghans. But is he? When the Soviets are finally pushed out, he – and America – leaves Khan and his enemies to their in-fighting and returns home, leaving behind, Rogers implies, a mess that endures to the present day.