Matthew Spangler’s stage adaptation of The Kite Runner, which premiered in California in 2009, has opened for a highly-anticipated stint in London’s West End, with Giles Croft as director.
Condensing Khaled Hosseini’s epic novel into a two-and-a-half-hour play, The Kite Runner is being staged at the Wyndham’s Theatre; where it follows a string of popular productions, including Martin McDonagh’s Hangmen, Duncan MacMillan’s People, Places and Things, and Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land. This is a production which sticks loyally to a popular text, reimagining Hosseini’s well-known characters on a West End stage for the first time.
Many will be familiar with the story of The Kite Runner, having read Hosseini’s 2003 novel or watched the 2007 film adaptation. Set initially in Afghanistan, it’s the story of Amir, son of a wealthy Pashtun business man, and his friendship with Hassan, the son of his father’s Hazara servant.
In Spangler’s adaptation, the story falls neatly into two halves: Amir’s childhood, spent in Kabul in the 1970s, makes up the first act, and his life as an adult, having escaped from the Soviet military intervention and Taliban regime – first to Pakistan and then to California – makes up the second act. However, Amir’s life is defined by another poignant moment: that in which he witnessed Hassan – his best friend and protector – being raped by their tormentor, without standing up for him or mentioning the assault again.
In the first half of The Kite Runner, time is given to setting the scene and following the boys’ friendship, as well as painting an idyllic picture of Kabul in the days before the intervention and subsequent regime. Ben Turner brings a frank honesty to the role of Amir, our narrator. Wearing his inability to stand up for himself like a badge of failure, he reflects back on his childhood in Kabul, both troubled by and guiltily accepting of his failure to defend Hassan. Emilio Doorgasingh carries much of the play’s humour in his role as Baba, Amir’s father. Despite his flaws, it’s easy to watch Baba with affection as he struggles to adapt to American culture, grumbling: “in this country, even the flies are pressed for time”. Andrei Costin brings a playfulness to the role of Hassan, and a more serious shyness to the part of Sohrab, Hassan’s son.
Female characters are either sidelined or out of the picture entirely in The Kite Runner (unlike in Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns where the protagonist and other significant characters are female). Amir’s wife, Soraya, is the only significant female presence, and even her part is arguably two-dimensional. That said, Lisa Zahra brings warmth and likability to the role.
Barney George’s set is comprised of tall, jagged wooden planks, which take the form of a restricting and unstable wooden fence when we’re in Kabul, but morph into a row of spindly skyscrapers once we’re transported to San Francisco. Curtains appear like a pair of fragile butterfly wings to enable scenes too violent and upsetting to take place on stage to be enacted behind them as silhouettes. Charles Balfour’s lighting creates an ice blue sky, perfect for a kite flying winter in Kabul, and later turn a dusty orange and foggy grey to visualise the San Francisco haze. Hanif Khan’s tabla playing sets a rhythm to the play: pulsing steadily, then beating frantically in more dramatic moments.
Themes in The Kite Runner are as relevant today as when the novel was written over a decade ago. Amir and Baba flee their homeland and become refugees, first in Pakistan then in the USA, and it’s hard not to think of the refugee crisis when watching their journey. The story’s wider themes of friendship, loyalty and redemption are timeless. And, it doesn’t matter if you already know the ending because you’ve read the novel or seen the film, watching Amir “be good again” through risking his life for Sohrab is a tear-jerking, heart-warming moment.
The Kite Runner is playing at Wyndham’s Theatre until 11 March 2017. For more information and tickets, see here.