The Kite Runner
Adapted by Matthew Spangler
Based on the novel by Khaled Hosseini
Review by Georgia Kelly
Once you’ve begun paying attention to the impossible hand movements of the tabla player at the opening of the show it’s equally impossible to look away. The entrancing pieces performed by Hanif Khan throughout are just one of the elements of live music in this production of The Kite Runner that has just opened at The Birmingham REP. This and many other haunting and beautiful instruments form the traditional sounds that take us into the heart of Kabul, Afghanistan in the early 1970s. To Amir and Hassan, two young boys whose lives are forever altered by the events of one winter.
Before American or even Soviet occupation, we’re shown an Afghanistan rarely remembered in the media today. A rich and diverse place, of business and family, of Afghan generosity and trust, and of lives that have slipped beyond reach now that the country has been torn apart by war. We see Amir and his wealthy businessman Baba, along with their servants, Ali and his son Hassan. The boys are ‘friends’; Hassan openly states he would eat dirt if Amir told him to. His first word was Amir’s name. Yet Amir is constantly caught between calling him friend or servant, having him do his bidding, and finding himself shrinking behind him when Hassan stands up to the bullies when Amir cannot. To make it more complicated Hassan and his father are ‘hazaras’ – Suni muslims, a smaller, marginalised branch of Islam. But the sons of a businessman and a servant play together daily, and wait until the winter where they can run kites. The long established Afghan past-time of kite fighting, where glass coated strings of handmade kites cut others out of the sky until one remains, and where the last kite that falls from the sky is a prize to be fought for. It’s their favourite time of year. It’s here where the story really begins, and where everything changes for Amir and Hassan.
Many of us have read The Kite Runner (whether out of choice or because of it being on the reading list for A-Level English) and it’s popularity as a highly regarded novel is well known. The stage version is also commended for its easy transition from page to stage. Depending on your feelings toward the original novel you may or may not agree. If you’ve never read it you’re likely to find yourself less burdened by comparisons. As one of many who has read the book it’s something I found hard to overlook, mostly as despite it being a visually beautiful piece with rich music and design the script itself seemed to omit many aspects of the novel – though ultimately it is almost impossible to recreate every precise detail from such an expansive story for the stage, some of the missing pieces range from fragments to whole themes: For instance Amir and Baba’s experiences as refugees, from fleeing Kabul to arriving in Pakistan to finally getting their visas, takes up all of five minutes. The fact of Hassan’s father, Ali’s, polio is missed entirely, despite it being a key component to the main revelation of the story. It’s small fragments like these that effect the overall impact of the piece and leave said revelation falling flat due to lack of anticipation.
Of the original elements that are included some of the most poignant are carried by Gary Pillai as Baba, Amir’s father. He is played book-perfect with pride and strength right up to the last, never failing to show the characters conflicting emotions beneath the surface in a character that can easily be perceived as cold at first glance. Though it is Amir, his son, who is supposed to carry the show. Yet against the complex, inward character of the novel this productions Amir is distractingly emphatic.
As Amir’s bully however, Soroosh Lavasini must be mentioned for his deeply unsettling portrayal as Assef. A performance founded in a deep understanding of his character that lead from the wicked young boy to the fearsome adult so clearly that I felt I somehow knew every event that had made one the other.
Another commendable performance comes from Karl Seth (also brilliantly versatile in a range of other minor roles throughout) as Rahim Khan. His fatherly tenderness towards Amir is a tangible lifeline and is another example of a character in this production that feels as if they’d been pulled from the pages of the novel itself.
But without question my thoughts on these performances is informed by my knowledge of the book. Rather than being able to stand on its own two feet it is a piece that can leave the audience requiring the crutch of Hosseini’s original text to fully understand the performance. Nevertheless it is a worthwhile night of theatre, offering audiences the chance to engage in a part of Afghan history that is often pushed aside by media in favour of more malicious ideas about the country and its people. The Kite Runner succeeds in painting a portrait of diverse lives in Afghanistan and the varied effects the last forty years have had on them, their country, and their futures. In the end Rahim Khan offers a light that can give hope to every dark vignette of war, guilt, asylum and more: “There is a way to be good again.” Ultimately The Kite Runner is a story about just that, redemption.
The Kite Runner is showing at The Birmingham REP from 13th – 24th March.