I came late to Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner having somehow never read the Best Selling novel first published in 2003 or seen the 2007/8 film adaptation. I finally put that right with a beguiling stage version now running at the Wyndham’s Theatre – and it’s sheer delight.
The story concentrates on Amir (Ben Turner) and his friendship with Hassan (Andrei Costin) in 1970s Afghanistan. Amir has a privileged life: Hassan’s father is servant to Amir’s father, so Amir and Hassan’s friendship is genuine but hierarchical. Where Amir’s education has enabled him to read & write, Hassan, by contrast, is illiterate: something Amir delights in when he explains that “imbecile” means “intelligent”. Hassan looks up to Amir, not just as a friend but as a superior. His status as servant is dictated not just by his father’s position in the household, but by their Hazara (Shi’a) minor ethnicity – a sect widely looked down upon in Afghanistan.
There is a great deal of humour in the play’s early scenes, with Matthew Spangler’s skilful adaptation deftly revealing the social complexity of Amir and Hassan’s friendship in a series of vignettes reminiscent of Blood Brothers. The young Amir may be educated, but even his naivety shows through when he asks his father, Baba (Emelio Doorgasingh) why John Wayne doesn’t speak Farsi since he is Iranian?
But, there are truths buried in Kabul and truth has a way of clawing its way to the surface. Kabul pre-1973 was largely peaceful, at least if you had money. Whisky was drunk and life was relatively carefree. The young Amir showed a skill for storytelling. In Hassan he had a captive audience, but Baba was largely disinterested – just wishing his son be more brave. Amir’s first story, of a man who discovers a magical bowl into which every tear cried becomes a pearl becomes a parable; the bowl is found by the happiest man in the world but whose greed ultimately overpowers him.
The play’s first truly chilling moment comes in the form of the bullying Assef (Nicholas Karimi). Karimi’s physical portrayal of the Sociopathic Assef is uncomfortable to watch as Amir is confronted in the street. Only the threat of Hassan’s slingshot saves them on their first meeting, but it is portentous and all the more chilling in hindsight.
Barney George’s design, Charles Balfour’s lighting and William Simpsons’s projections are simple but highly effective, allowing seamless transitions from homes to streets with just the drop of a curtain or moving of a trunk but it is the soundscape created through a mixture of pre-recorded sounds and live drums, wind and Tibetan prayer bowls, which really creates the show’s unique atmosphere – hats off to Jonathan Girling and Drew Baumohi.
The show’s title comes from the traditional afghan sport of Kite Fighting, where kite flyers compete with one another using strings sharpened with broken glass to try to cut the strings of other competitors. It’s after Amir’s greatest victory that Hassan runs to retrieve the blue kite he has cut down and is confronted once again by Assef. Amir arrives but, gripped by fear is too afraid to go to his friend’s aid as Hassan is raped. The moment changes everything for both boys and tears two friends apart.
Unable to bear the shame he feels for not going to Hassan’s aid, Amir begins to avoid his friend and then to shun his company entirely. Deciding it would be easier if Hassan were not around at all, he asks his father whether they could get new servants, and then in desperation, conceals money and a watch under Hassan’s bed.
In an act of pure self-sacrifice, Hassan confesses to a crime he has not committed, and even though Baba forgives him, Hassan’s father decides that they cannot stay where his son has broken trust and the pair leave the home they have known for forty years.
Act two begins with Amir and Baba’s fleeing Afghanistan following the overthrowing of the regime and subsequent Russian occupation. Smuggled in the back of a suffocating truck, the journey into Pakistan is fraught with risk and should be a lesson for anyone thinking that those fleeing war-zones would ever do so lightly.
The cast do a great job with frequent switches of costume and character and Ben Turner’s solid central performance gives the twisting story a strong anchor through a story which moves not just a country away, but soon to the other side of the Earth.
A slightly clichéd introduction to life in America follows, playing to stereotypes and is perhaps director Giles Croft’s only misguided moment.
A new life begins for Amir as he embraces the new possibilities before him. Romance blooms in the form of Soraya (Lisa Zahra) in a Flea Market where old ways survive but new lives must be pursued. Baba lives to see their wedding but soon afterwards succumbs to cancer. After Baba’s death, the return of his father’s friend, Rahim Khan (Nicholas Khan) reveals a shocking truth to Amir requiring a move in the story back to a post 9/11 Afghanistan, with new and still more terrible risk.
The Kite Runner offers a tantalising glimpse into a country of extremes and confusing beauty. Ben Turner’s central performance is solid and touching, and Nicholas Karimi’s disturbing portral of Assef is remarkable. But for me the show’s star was Andrei Costin’s utterly endearing and heartbreakingly vulnerable Hassan.
At times, particularly in Act Two, the storytelling begins to feel a little laboured and the show would benefit from a few tweaks to speed the story along, but this warts-and-all story of a privileged but damaged life in Kabul reveals a side to Afghanistan that few Westerners see and never forgets that humanity can be found in even the darkest corner of our world.
Buy tickets for The Kite Runner, running until March 11
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