It appears that I have been living under a rock for the past fourteen years because I confess, gentle reader, that I had never heard of The Kite Runner. You know, that famous book by Khaled Hosseini, published in 2003, that spent 101 weeks on The New York Times Best Seller list, that was adapted into the film of the same name that was nominated for the Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 2007. That’s the one. Never heard of it.
Matthew Spangler’s dramatic adaptation of the book first saw light of day in 2009 at the San Jose Repertory Theatre, San Jose, California, but didn’t appear in the UK until it was picked up by the Nottingham Playhouse in 2013, and this West End run is basically the same production including many of the original cast members.
It’s the story of Amir, the son of a wealthy Afghan merchant, and his friendship with his father’ servant’s son Hassan, as boys growing up in an exclusive area of Kabul in the 1970s. Kite flying in Afghanistan (subsequently banned by the Taliban) was a popular and respected sport, and the boys would love nothing better than to spend the day in competitive fun; Amir was a great flyer, and Hassan excelled at Kite Running – knowing the precise spot where the kite would land so that he could bring it back to his master. It’s a similar relationship to that between a huntsman and his ghillie. It’s not enough simply to win the tournament, you also have to regain possession of your victorious kite. It’s like catching the boomerang again once it returns.
Amir longs for recognition and love from Baba, his father, but he is a distant and strict man, who doesn’t have time for Amir’s woolly pursuits, like writing fiction, for Heaven’s sake. Amir knows the only way he will win Baba’s attention and affection will be if he wins the kite flying tournament. Hassan knows this too, and will do anything to secure the kite back for Amir; absolutely anything. But when Hassan’s unquestioning and unconditional loyalty to Amir takes him into physical danger, Amir fails to step in and prevent his friend from being harmed. And he’s going to regret that for many, many years to come. The story is full of surprises and twists and I’ve no wish to deprive you of experiencing the first-hand discovery of what happens next, so if you want to see how Amir and Hassan turn out, you’ll have to go see it for yourself.
It’s a play about loyalty and trust, love and devotion; racial and religious intolerance; the plight of refugees and the instinct for survival. It takes us from cosmopolitan Kabul in the 70s, through the 80s invasion by the USSR, the family’s resettlement in California a little later, to Peshawar in Pakistan in the mid 90s, back to war-torn Kabul under the Taliban rule before finally completing its story in California in the 21st century. At times the story takes on epic proportions, at others it’s very intimate and personal; and the unifying thread throughout the play is Amir, permanently onstage as the narrator of his own story, the focus of all the attention from child to adult.
And it’s overwhelmingly emotional. At least, that’s what I felt. By the time it ended it had made me cry not once, not twice, but three times. Honestly, where was my self-respect? It’s quite uncomfortable sitting in the middle of the crowded stalls with your body going through those barely controllable convulsions you get when you really want to burst into hysterical tears but have to keep it hidden inside for the sake of decorum. Much to my surprise, Mrs Chrisparkle managed to avoid having to fight back the tears, leading her to suspect that this is more of a boys’ play than a girls’. She might be right; although the lady to her left was drowning in Kleenex barely 30 minutes in to the first act. It’s certainly a very male-centric play, if that word exists, with few female characters of any substance; but then again, that’s probably an accurate representation of Afghan society.
But it’s more than just a blubfest, it’s a riveting story, told beautifully, with crystal clarity and simplicity and with some immense performances that will stay with you long after curtain down. Barney George’s design pays maybe almost too much attention to those two large unfurling kites at the back of the stage. They act as a screen backdrop for swirling images and to hide backstage characters before and after they leave the stage – but, to be honest, I found them a little disruptive to the general flow of the story. Apart from that, I loved the use of the staging; the simple formality of Afghan lifestyle later to be overwhelmed by the garishness of the refugees’ arrival in California, which provides a much needed few minutes of hilarity. Hanif Khan makes a tremendous contribution to the show with his tabla playing; providing the equivalent of an overture before the play gets underway (which gets a huge round of applause) to providing constant incidental music throughout the show, never obtrusive but always atmospheric and enhancing the mood. Who knew that you could get such tuneful sounds out of drums?
At the heart of the play is the central performance of Amir by Ben Turner. I’ve not seen Mr Turner before but what a mesmerising portrayal he gives! The youthful Amir with a strong heart full of optimism; the older boy with his heart tainted by his selfish lack of care for his friend; the young adult tentatively getting to know the (apparently) only female Afghan in California; the wiser man lured back to Asia to see his father’s best friend and desperate for atonement for his sins; the family man trying to make the best of what remains in the post-Taliban era. Mr Turner makes you empathise with Amir both when he’s a kind, good man and when he’s more of an anti-hero. Even though the character makes some appalling errors of judgment, you still care about him. Technically brilliant throughout, with neither a foot out of place nor a vocal inflexion underplayed. Fully deserving of his instant standing ovation.
Andrei Costin’s Hassan is a study in devotion; like a puppy removed from its mother at too young an age, he simply worships the ground on which Amir treads, or he just wants to play. It’s a wonderful portrayal of someone who is too trusting, too self-effacing, but who almost gains strength and credibility by the extent to which he allows himself to be hurt. When Hassan is presented with those dreadful moments when the only way of supporting Amir is to sacrifice himself, Mr Costin shows us those angst-ridden flashes of pain and dismay as he accepts the inevitable, and your heart breaks for him. You’re in for some very emotional times. This is his West End debut – and boy, is it a good one.
Emilio Doorgasingh invests Baba with a forceful personality that dominates the young Amir but also lets you see his vulnerable side as his relationship with Ali and Hassan breaks down; Baba’s eventual slowdown once he reaches California is very moving to observe. Nicholas Khan is great as Baba’s friend Rahim Khan, showing Amir a warmer side to the traditional male role model, and again very moving when Amir returns to see him in Peshawar later in the play. I was very impressed with the physicality of Ezra Faroque Khan’s performances as Ali and Farid, creating very believable and recognisable characters even before they have spoken a word, just through his movement. Antony Bunsee gives us a magnificently stern General Taheri; Lisa Zahra plays Soraya with charm and kindness; and Nicholas Karimi makes the best of his villainous opportunities as the cruel Assef, a vindictive, sadistic thug who hides his true nature with his hypocritical behaviour with Baba and Rahim. But it’s an all-round excellent ensemble who work together beautifully and there isn’t a weak link in the chain anywhere.
Mrs C said that some of the so-called surprises didn’t come as a surprise to her. Well, all I can say is that she must be psychic or something. As for me, I was simply hooked from the start to the finish, I took and accepted everything the story told me – I was putty in the production’s hands. It gave me an insight into lives I didn’t know about, and shows that those human emotions we all recognise in ourselves and our loved ones can also be found in those statistics of Islamist war victims. It’s on at Wyndham’s until 11th March and I’d highly recommend it.
Production photos by Robert Workman and Robert Day