Khaled Hosseini's 2003 global blockbuster, which moves between Kabul and San Francisco across several decades and which examines Afghanistan's recent political convulsions through the prism of a ruptured friendship between two Afghan boys, is, to be honest, a bit of a potboiler. Yes, it offers a detailed look at a complex situation, but the writing is breathless and prone to sentimentality. Small wonder it was quickly made into a Hollywood film.
Yet to watch this new theatrical adaptation in 2017, with a new American president brought in on a nativist platform and with the mess in the Middle East showing no signs of easing, is to find in Hosseini's story a renewed poignancy and charge. It is, after all, a story steeped in the blood of tribalism, racial prejudice and blundering Western imperialism. And the first third is set in a sun-drenched 1970s Kabul as Amir, the son of a wealthy Pashtun businessman, and his Hazara servant and best mate Hassan affectionately muck about. Their favourite game is kite-running – the great Kabul pastime in the pre-Taliban era and, with those fragile shapes fluttering like wings in the sky, an enduring symbol of innocence and freedom.
Yet the plot rapidly moves on to disaster. Amir fails to help his more vulnerable friend when his friend needs it most and, consumed by shame and self-loathing, engineers another act of betrayal that, combined with the impact of Afghanistan's seismic political upheavals, brings about a separation between the two friends that lasts forever.
Hosseini's original novel is a triumph of high-definition storytelling, but transferring it to the stage is no easy feat. Matthew Spangler's adaptation is faithful, but also dogged and inevitably episodic. Director Giles Croft's pleasingly bare-bones, piercingly lucid production makes an absolute virtue of simplicity but at times can feel similarly pedestrian. Barney George's colour-saturated sets, a series of Rothko-like blocks of colour, evoke Kabul in much the same way they do San Francisco. Throughout you miss the grit and grain of detail and specificity.
But all that matters less than it ought. Ben Turner pulls you right into the vortex surging through the privileged but disaffected Amir, who as a child quietly suspects that his widowed dad prefers Hassan over him. I'm never convinced by adults playing children, but even in these early flashback scenes, Turner makes you feel queasily complicit as you watch him as a young boy knowingly behaving appallingly. Hosseini's trick as a storyteller is to establish the emotional conflict first before letting the wider political nightmares piling up in Afghanistan slowly filter in. At the same time, the narrative template of betrayal – manifested in various ways between Amir, his dad and Hassan and in the rape Hassan endures at the hands of the local sociopathic thug Assef – powerfully prefigures and refracts the broader geopolitical nexus of treachery, abuse and invasion that will indelibly reconfigure Afghanistan.
This may be a solid rather than exciting piece of work, but it's also clear, clean and undeniably moving. Throughout there's some lovely, aromatic texture provided by tabla player Hanif Khan at the corner of the stage. But the most eloquent notes come from Andrei Cosan as first Hassan and later his orphaned son Sohrab. Pale faced, simultaneously tremulous and forceful, like a shadow made of steel, in both roles he combines not just the face of friendship and determination but of profound and long-lasting damage.