A Thousand Splendid Suns is about mothers and daughters surviving in the most extreme of circumstances. Based on Khaled Hosseini’s novel of the same name and adapted for the stage by playwright Ursula Rani Sarma, the play is set in an Afghanistan destabilised by brutal conflict and the growing threat of an oppressive regime. Central to the story is Laila (Sujaya Dasgupta), who is ripped away from a household of education and kindness, and forced into marriage with a violent older man. Rasheed (Pal Aron) already has a wife, Mariam (Amina Zia), making him a bigamist. Mariam carries her own past hardships and at first the women clash until they become united in support of one another against their common enemy and oppressor — their husband.
The beauty of Ana Inés Jabaraes-Pita’s production design is immediately obvious; it serves the action well transporting us from the drizzly North East of England to the desert in Kabul. However, the majesty of the set is secondary to the harrowing subject matter that focuses on women’s pain. The play doesn’t shy away from this, showing us the cruel truth of living under misogynist rule in a war-torn country, and there are two scenes that will stay with me for a long time. The first depicts the birth of Laila’s second child when she is left with no choice but to undergo a cesarean section without anesthetic. The second is an achingly effective portrayal of Mariam’s out-of-body experience as she undergoes a merciless beating. Still, these powerful moments of suffering are at times strangely undercut with humour that feels like it’s been shunted into the script for the sake of making the story more palatable for the audience.
To say that I enjoy A Thousand Splendid Suns wouldn’t be quite right. I’m struggling to reach for language that articulates the experience of seeing a piece of theatre that deals so confrontationally with a reality very far removed from my own. I do think that the characters might be allowed to reach beyond the realms of melodrama and that overall there could be more emotional nuance though the performance. But maybe, given the source material and the challenge of condensing a rich and expansive plot, it is inevitable for character development to give way to an overarching narrative. As much as A Thousand Splendid Suns isn’t always tonally coherent, it’s impactful and at its best when it looks directly into the darkness.
A Thousand Splendid Suns is playing Northern Stage until 15 June. For more information and tickets, see the Northern Stage website.