Tuesday night at the Devonshire Park Theatre. A lengthy production of a stark and sombre play. Quiet, intense concentration. But at the curtain, a packed audience breaks the tension, explodes with acclaim, and is on its feet. The Kite Runner is the essence of compelling, mesmerising theatre.
The joy of theatre is its variety: as well as this week’s Kite Runner, an admirable Devonshire Park Spring programme will have spanned a classic Importance of Being Earnest and a ghostly Turn of the Screw, a racy Rat Pack and an absurd Monty Python.
But the essence of theatre is its mirror-to-life reflection of human nature, its presentation – often raw, live and inescapable – of our own flaws and virtues. But for the chances of birth and geography, the Kite Runner could be you, could be me.
Unlike the movie of the same title, Matthew Spangler’s stage adaptation stays quite faithful to the novel. It is long – running time not far short of three hours – and rather circuitous as it unfolds virtually a whole life story, not autobiographical but credible, and rooted in the dreadful realities of Afghanistan’s recent history. Khaled Hosseini himself calls The Kite Runner an “intimate epic”: a contradiction perhaps, but skilfully achieved.
Giles Croft’s direction scores really high on detail. The body language of formal or informal greetings, the little rituals of wedding and funeral, or the bustle of a market place all feel authentic and unforced, and there is plenty of seamless, natural ensemble playing. Designer Barney George has created a wonderful set, uncluttered and flexible, beautifully lit and overarched by the huge pair of kite wings, which frame the action and occasionally mask moments that we should not witness. And modestly unobtrusive at the corner of the stage, Hanif Khan sits cross-legged and drills out mesmerising music and rhythms. The scene is set.
Like the kites themselves, relationships in the play are beautiful but fragile. The play is exhausting simply to watch, never mind to perform, but the production grips the audience ever more tightly as the story develops. Amir – a massive and consummate performance by Raj Ghatak – and his boyhood friend Hassan, a sympathetic and vulnerable Jo Ben Ayed, play and tumble innocently. Gary Pillai and Rez Kabir as their fathers, respectively employer and loyal servant, bring a benevolent stability – but all is to be undermined.
While a hidden Amir watches terrified, Hassan suffers an appalling assault by the bullying Assef – played with grinning nastiness, but perhaps with a too youthful adolescence, by Soroosh Lavasini. (Soroosh’s Assef will later return, brilliantly and yet horribly, as a Taliban general whose soliloquy of evil is the single finest piece of writing and acting in the play.) But Amir, although surely too young and powerless to blame himself, is consumed with self-reproach.
And, as Afghanistan descends into the chaos of Russian invasion and then Taliban tyranny, Amir is exiled to San Francisco. Here, he rides out family tragedies and rebuilds a life, including marriage to Soraya – a beautiful, engaging and nicely understated portrayal by Amiera Darwish. Their partnership, their faith, and their pursuit of justice take Amir back to Kabul where – with some tortuous late twists in the plot – he finds redemption and a restoring of his debt to Hassan.
Be warned: the play has moments of stark terror, undiluted cruelty, abhorrent violence including sexual violence. None are gratuitous, all are integral to the story and the context. But you will shudder, and at least once you will look away.
And yet there is beauty, humanity and a sense of full circle.
Great theatre – and this is great theatre – does not compromise, and its power is in the whole and not the parts. The Kite Runner is, ultimately, a celebration and a triumph of human resilience made stronger through adversity, and a reassurance that goodness is uncrushable. These are more than merely actors, and this is more than a mere play. See it, and The Kite Runner will be seared on your memory. By Kevin Anderson.