The Kite Runner
Adapted by Matthew Spangler from the novel by Khaled Hosseini
Wyndham's Theatre, London WC2
Reviewed by Jarlath O'Connell
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The problem with adapting big epic novels to the stage is that too often you end up with just the plot.
Khaled Hosseini's much loved novel, which has sold more than 23 million copies, has the epic sweep, large timespan and that blend of the personal and the political, the intimate and the epic, which defines a classic novel.
Here in Matthew Spangler's rather pedestrian adaptation, which runs just short of three hours, we do get swept up in this gripping tale of guilt and atonement but the texture of the novel gets rather lost along the way and too often it appears to have a cloying earnestness to it. By slavishly following the first person narrator of the novel we end up with a chronological series of events and theatre adding nothing.
Giles Croft's staging fatally lacks pace and apart from the quiet poetry of a wedding scene, where the narrative takes a breather, it lacks any real imaginative spark. He created it 2013 as the UK premiere in a co-production for Nottingham Playhouse and Liverpool's Everyman, but Spengler had originated the piece for the stage in California back in 2007. It therefore predates the successful Oscar nominated film version, which would also be known to many.
The story is narrated by Amir, an Afghan refugee living in California and looking back on a childhood incident during the halcyon days of Kabul in the ‘70s which has haunted him his whole life. He and his widowed father Baba, from a comfortable and privileged Pashtun background, were forced to flee after the Soviet invasion. Amir's memories are dominated by his inseparable boyhood friend, Hassan, the kite runner of the title, who was the poor and illiterate son of the family servant and a member of the persecuted Hazara minority. The sensitive Amir's charged relationship with his father plays out in an incident where a fatal misjudgement by him leads to him betraying Hassan, after an altercation with the local bully, Assef. Not surprisingly, Assef later ends up as a Taliban thug. The guilt over all this causes Amir to take a further action which separates him and Hassan for good and leads to his lifelong search for redemption.
Having adults play the characters from childhood, as in Blood Brothers, does occasionally jar, as does the ‘generalised exotic' accents which are often very old Hollywood indeed. Despite this, Ben Turner who combines narrator and lead as Amir, carries the play with ease and has a rapt audience in tears by the end. Emilio Doorgasingh too manages to give the big hearted father much light and shade and his journey from the comfortable upper class life, to Third World refugee hell, to adapting to the zany reality of ‘80s San Francisco, is beautifully etched by him. The slightly built Andrei Costin is genuinely moving too in the difficult role of the innocent and ever loyal Hassan and Antony Bunsee is perfect as a rigid exiled General, who ends up as Amir's father in law.
Unlike the Tricycle's epic play cycle The Great Game or Tony Kushner's Homebody/Kabul the piece does little to really enlighten one about the chequered history of Afghanistan but there is no denying the heart wrenching pull of Hosseini's great tale. It will have a particular impact on those who are not familiar with the novel. Take Kleenex.