First told as a novel, now retold for the stage, Khaled Hosseini’s 2003 book has sold 31.5m copies in 60 languages. It was adapted for film in 2007, this stage adaptation is by Mathew Spangler, first appearing in America in 2008, and Nottingham in the UK, in 2013. Its ambition is considerable, embracing themes of family ties in the Shakespearean tradition, whilst echoing the more modern stage variations on the theme realised by Willy Russells’ Blood Brothers.
Returning to the Rep after a successful West End run, a full house, notable for being both predominantly young and ethnically diverse, reflected the more affordable ticketing policy of the Rep, after the controversy of £100 tickets for the production in London. The Rep is a fabulous auditorium, with 825 steeply raked single tier seats ensuring there is not a bad view in the house. A simple set features wood strip flooring and vertical planks which double as skyscrapers in San Fransisco, and more modest accommodation in Kabul. An elaborate butterfly wing /kite screen, which descends from the ceiling, is particularly effective for scene and mood changes. On stage, Hanif Khan’s tabla-playing, sat on a mat, adds mood, musical pulse, and authenticity, augmented by Tibetan singing bowls and Schwirrbogen.
Raj Ghatak is the star of the show as main protagonist and narrator Amir. On one level this is a story about two young Afghan boys, kite runners, whose lives spectacularly diverge. On another, this is a love story, the love between a father and son, and about friendship, betrayal, guilt, atonement and redemption. Jo Ben Ayed is wonderful as Amir’s childhood friend and fellow kite runner Hassan, son of his father’s servant, and brother-like figure. He is an essential, downtrodden foil to Amir’s success story. Every tragedy needs its villain, Soroosh Lavasini is exquisitely leering sneering and vicious as street thug Assef. When in America, Amir remarks that there is no Afghan word for sociopath.
The Taleban, Russian Army, Sunni / Shia rivalry and American immigration service throw up various obstacles along the way, with modern Afghan history the backcloth to this human tragedy. Gary Pillai is outstanding as Amir’s father Baba. He is an imposing, traditional figure, with a selective interpretation of religious demands, and a moral frailty, revealed in the second act, which motivates his largesse to his servant. Amiera Darwish plays Amir’s wife Soraya, in the only principal female role, with a confident beauty. Early on, Amir remarks that he thought that John Wayne was Iranian, as he spoke in dubbed Farsi on his imported Westerns, a gentle, amusing aside. But theatre goers should be warned that there is a pivotal, but gruesome, male rape scene in which a young boy takes an unexpected backdoor delivery.
Inevitably a stage production cannot match the detail of the original book, nor the dramatic panoramic landscapes of film. But what this production does have in spades is energy and drive. The obvious Afghan/ American culture clash is understated, the visceral culture clash between Amir as Pashtun (Sunni) and Hassan as Hazara (Shi’a) dominates proceedings. In an era of British isolationism through Brexit, and an uncertain Trump led America, the Kite Runner is a beautiful, searing, modern human personal tragedy, uplifting and humorous, but unforgiving of the brutality of human shortcomings, universal in its outlook and appeal.
The narrated account of Amir’s family’s flight from Afghanistan, courtesy of a passage in an airless, empty fuel tanker, awash with vomit, excrement and urine, so bad that it induces some passengers to commit suicide, cannot fail to move. Touchingly, the delight on the faces of the audience, many of whom rose to their feet to applaud at the end, was mirrored by the delight of the actors who had given their all in a memorable production.
Runs until the 24th March and continues on tour.