Epic novels rarely work as well on the stage as they do on the page. Revealing details get lost in the shuffle, complex characters are invariably reduced to thumbnail sketches, and the arc of time, which helps give novels their leisurely structure, is by necessity concertinaed into two or three hours at most.
The vital ingredient in transferring a novel into a play is a strong narrative, and that is exactly what Khaled Housseini’s 2003 international bestseller The Kite Runner (30 million copies sold in 60 countries) has in abundance, and which Matthew Spangler uses to dramatic effect in his moving adaptation, which, like the book, begins in Kabul and ends, three decades later, in San Francisco. En route this tragic personal story of guilt, betrayal and redemption is also, in a wider sense, the story of Afghanistan’s political turmoil at the hands of the Soviets and the Taliban.
The device Spangler adopts in telling Housseini’s timely and touching story is having a narrator who also happens to be Amir (Ben Turner), the leading character. Whereas in both the novel and the 2007 film version, Amir is first seen as a 12-year-old, in the play he is a grown man from the outset, communicating directly with the audience as he describes the turbulent events that shaped his life from his childhood to adulthood.
Yet while the decision to give the narration a first-person perspective is the obvious one, there’s a certain awkwardness to it. The scenes in which Amir, the son of Baba (Emilio Doorgasingh), a successful Pashtun businessman, and his best friend Hassan (Andrei Costin), the son of Ali (Ezra Faroque Khan), Baba’s devoted Hazara servant, are seen interacting as schoolboy contemporaries – especially in their shared passion for kite flying – might have been more effective had children of the right age been used, with the adult Amir narrating retrospectively.
But once you accept the device and see where Spangler is going with it, Husseini’s story hits its compulsive stride, beginning with a traumatic incident in which Hassan, a victim of discrimination, is raped by Assef (Nicholas Karimi), a local fascistic thug, while Amir, to his life-changing and eternal shame, stands by cowering and doing nothing to help his faithful friend. (Fortunately the scene is less graphically staged than it was in the film.)
In the more affecting second half, in which the adult Amir and his father emigrate to America to escape the Taliban and begin a new life, Amir, still deeply guilt ridden and awash in self-hatred by his cowardly behaviour towards Hassan, is given, with the help and encouragement of a Muslim woman (Lisa Zahra) he meets and marries in San Francisco, a second chance “to be good again.”
Despite compromises made to shoehorn Housseini’s sprawling narrative into two hours and 40 minutes, The Kite Runner remains a deeply moving theatrical experience. You would have to have a heart of flint to remain unaffected by the destinies of its two protagonists.
Though Turner and Costin may not be everyone’s ideal casting as Amir and Hassan, this Nottingham Playhouse and Liverpool Everyman Production, first seen in Nottingham in 2013, deserves its West End transfer. Under Giles Croft’s agile, well-paced direction, plot trumps characterisation without irreparably damaging or diminishing the complex fabric of the original.
Barney George’s set, though, could have been a bit more evocative than it is. What looks like a black semi-circular wooden fence doubles for the skylines of Kabul and San Francisco, while projections on a giant two-part kite convey changes in locale. In the great kite race in act one, kites are projected onto a backdrop, with the cast of 13 adding to the illusion by whirring spindles and miming at manipulating kite strings. Music is discreetly supplied by Hanif Khan playing the tabla on stage.