The Kite Runner is an example of The West End doing what it is loved for: a marvellous story, exotic and involving, beautifully staged and gracefully performed. It opens a window onto a different world and, yet, resolutely speaks about life in Britain today – America too, for that matter. With bracing humanity, The Kite Runner examines the consequences of deception, betrayal and tradition. Kites are always flown, no matter where you live or who you are – and chasing them will help release your soul.
In the programme for Giles Croft’s production of Matthew Spangler’s The Kite Runner, based on the best-selling novel by Khaled Hosseini, now playing at the Wyndham’s Theatre, Spangler describes the narrative thus:
This is a story about a father and a son; a story about two best friends; a love story; a story about transnational immigration and refugees; a story about the relative peace in Afghanistan in the 1970s, before the wars; global politics; class and ethnicity. Above all, though, The Kite Runner is a story of guilt and redemption. In some sense, Amir’s narrative is a plea for forgiveness – from us, as well as from himself.
Spangler is right. The scope of the narrative that unfolds over the course of two hours and forty minutes is Shakespearean in tone and gravitas: adultery, murder, betrayal, sexual assault, jealousy, tradition and religious dogma – all play their part in the story of Amir, a boy from Kabul who started life simply, chasing kites with his best friend, Hassan, and ends up as a successful writer in San Francsico, haunted by the ghosts of those who helped him on his way.
But Amir and Hassan come from a world where their friendship is frowned upon. Hassan is a servant and Hazara, a Persian speaking Shia Muslim; Amir is the son of a wealthy Pashtun, and a Sunni Muslim. Despite the ethnic disparity, they are inseparable childhood friends.
Amir’s father is harsh on Amir and, consequently, Amir is constantly fearful of his father’s displeasure. Amir takes these frustrations out on his friend, Hassan, who takes all he is given with endless good grace. At one point, Hassan rescues Amir from an attack by a local bully, Assef, but Amir repays this courage and support by abandoning Hassan to an even worse fate at the hands of Assef.
Riddled by guilt, Amir turns away from Hassan, without explanation, setting off a series of events which finally sees the two boys separated forever, but not before Hassan does one more heroic act of selflessness in support of Amir.
What follows is a somewhat far-fetched set of events, most of which are predictable even if you don’t know the novel or the famous cinema version, which see Amir returning to his roots to make retribution to the memory of his childhood and to find his true self.
Spangler uses the memory play technique for this adaptation: the Amir character narrates his own history. This emphasises the nostalgia and soul-searching aspects of the tale, but also robs it of power. Amir’s life is never in danger because he is telling the tale. The life and death situations he faces may have played out better in linear form, with the ending in doubt.
This is not to say that there is not tension or fascination about the way Spangler chooses to tell the tale. There is – mainly because the fate of Hassan is unclear at all times. The story is fascinating and it informs about a place and time that most Western folk know little about. Spangler introduces just enough cultural history, ritual and ethnic detail to spark real interest in knowing more.
Croft’s production is sweet and generous in spirit, wrapping the audience completely in the spell of a different world, a different way of life. Barney George’s design is simple but effective, and there is excellent lighting from Charles Balfour which heightens the impact of the vicious and hate-filled scenes as much as the gentler, warmer scenes which turn on love and friendship.
Without question, what makes The Kite Runner thrilling are the two central performances.
Ben Turner is magical as Amir. He presents the difficult, frankly repellent, aspects of the character with an unflinching honesty, yet, almost unfathomably, manages to keep the audience totally onside. He doesn’t foreshadow the redemptive aspects of the tale, but he does make the many parts of Amir completely understandable.
Its a brave, open and intriguing performance. Turner is almost always on stage and almost never in the spotlight. He manages to make Amir seem like a peripheral character in the action, despite the fact he is narrating his own tale of redemption. But he does this in a way which, nevertheless, absolutely involves the audience in his journey. It’s a virtuoso turn in a number of ways, but the gracefulness and comedy he brings to the part, despite the character’s undeniably darker side, is astonishing.
He has immaculate support from Andrei Costin who gives a faultless performance as Hassan. Costin has the hardest task – his performance is embedded in Amir’s youth. Unlike Turner, his character does not age. In the second Act, Costin plays a different character, and brilliantly makes that youngster appreciably different from Hassan. No spoilers, but it’s sufficient to say that his ability to make that differentiation in the circumstances speaks volumes about his skill.
There is a supreme openness about Costin’s Hassan which is compelling and empathetic. His proficiency with a catapault is as believable as his wonder at the magic of the words in the stories Amir reads to him. Nimble, patient, attentive and loyal, Costin makes Hassan a hero for all ages. It will be a hard heart indeed that Costin does not break at least once during The Kite Runner.
There is excellent work too from the rest of the non-Caucasian cast. Nicholas Karimi is profoundly disconcerting at the brutal Assef and his second Act turn as a Taliban extremist is chilling. Ezra Faroque Khan is marvellous as Hassan’s crippled servant father, who has known Amir’s father for forty years but bravely supports his son when the chips are down; in the second Act he plays a phlegmatic Afghan driver who aids Amir’s quest. A complete transformation.
Lisa Zahra is marvellous as Soraya, the woman with a past that Amir loves and marries in San Francisco. She has few scenes but every single one counts and Zahra skewers the emotional centre of each of them. She is very good too as Mrs Nguyen, a Vietnamese shopkeeper with whom Amir’s father crosses swords. This is a very male story and Zahra’s bright presence accentuates the absence of women from the lives of Hassan and Amir.
As Amir’s father, Baba, Emilio Doorgasingh unravels all of the complexity and conflicting emotions of the character. His hardness is never in doubt, but as the play progresses, the creases carved out of regret and compromise show themselves clearly. The scene where Baba confronts a dissolute Russian soldier intent on rape is powerful indeed.
David Ahmad, Bhavin Bhatt and Antony Bunsee play a number of roles, all very well. Ahmad manages to make the audience feel sympathy for an orphanage director who plays God with his charges; Bhatt injects levity often, but particularly as a Doctor in a crucial scene; and Bunsee does a nice line in haughty Afghan rudeness. There is really not a weak link in the impressive cast.
Jonathan Girling assists the spectacle by providing an intriguing and haunting score which accents and accentuates the highs and lows the main characters experience. Hanif Khan is onstage, a tabla player of skill who adds to the rich tapestry of the different culture on display.
Although the story is constantly interesting, neither Spangler’s adaptation nor Croft’s physical production is responsible for the theatrical magic. That is entirely down to the acting. With lesser actors, The Kite Runner might be tiresome indeed.
Here though, its not. Costin and Turner lead the company in raw, honest and unspeakably beautiful work.
That is what makes The Kite Runner Shakespearean here. This might be an exotic tale about Afghanistan, but as this company plays it, it is possible to see – and almost impossible not to see – your own life reflected on the stage. Everyone makes mistakes, crosses a friend, betrays a trust – The Kite Runner makes you think about the loose ends of your own life that need tying.
A wonderful night in the theatre.