The Playhouse Theatre, 20 June 2016
The Kite Runner, the stage adaptation of Khaled Husseini’s bestseller, returns to the West End for its second stint. It’s simple and affecting tale, simply and affectingly told.
Some stage and film adaptations of books are better than the originals; but not many. In the overwhelming majority of cases, plays and films can only offer a pallid, two dimensional image of the book. In the words of Morrissey, “There’s more to life than books, you know/But not much more, not much more.”
So, if you have loved a book, the film or play version is often not only disappointing, it’s almost sacrilegious, with its reordering of events to suit a truncated narrative and its attenuated emotional range.
But that’s not to say every effort to adapt a well-loved good book for the screen or stage is a failure. In some cases, the adaptation is strong enough to not rival the book but become another entity entirely – a work of art that though inspired by the original is different enough to stand on its own two feet.
This is true of The Kite Runner, Matthew Spangler’s adaptation of Khaled Husseini’s widely read and greatly admired debut novel, which has returned to the West End at the Playhouse Theatre for a limited run.
Husseini’s novel, published in 2003, began life as a short essay when the author, who was born in Kabul in the early 1960s, learned that the Taleban had banned kite flying in his native Afghanistan.
Pained by such joyless puritanism, he began work on the novel that became a meditation on sons and fathers, friendship, betrayal, race, religion, life in Afghanistan before the arrival of the Russians, and the Afghan immigrant experience in the USA.
It’s a rattling good read, a real page turner, and a deeply moving story. These virtues remain evident in the stage adaptation. It’s not a short play, but one still wants to know what happens next even if you know the story. Time passes quickly.
The tale is, perhaps, a bit soap opera, sentimental and paint by numbers, contrived to tug at the heart strings. Yet many of the best authors – one thinks of Dickens – have not eschewed the most direct path to their readers’ emotions. And in an era when the National and the Royal Court seem determined to preach at their audiences with the most indigestible and un-theatrical fare imaginable, it’s a relief to find the West End producing a play that is designed to be both pleasing and moving to the people out front.
Amir, the narrator and central character, is born a Pashtun and Sunni in pre-revolutionary Kabul. His mother died giving birth to him, and he enjoys an uncertain often painful relationship with his father Baba, a successful businessman. His family’s servant Ali is a Hazara and a Shia, the despised ethnic and religious underclass, yet Amir’s best friend is Ali’s son Hassan.
Hassan’s something of a cipher as a character, born to be noble and suffer uncomplainingly. He lives for the slightest word of approbation from his beloved Amir, and as such is destined to be permanently disappointed.
Amir and Hassan become the champion kite flyers in Kabul, but also attract the malign attention of Assef, a local street tough and fully fledged psycho. The friendship between the two boys fractures in an act of horrifying brutality, and Amir’s failure to aid his friend in his hour of need fills him with desperate, angry shame that never leaves.
Following the Soviet invasion in 1979, Amir, now in his teens, and his dad flee to San Francisco. Here, his once proud dad is reduced to working as a gas station attendant to make ends meet while Amir eventually graduates college in creative writing. But the events of long ago and the unhealed self-loathing pulls Amir back to Kabul for a last attempt to prove his life has some validity.
The set for this production is very simple. The backdrop is a jagged skyline which first serves for Kabul, and then, with a little adjustment, for San Francisco. The stage is raked right and left, but, for the most part is entirely empty. With the exception of David Ahmad, who plays Amir both as a boy and a man, each of the remaining 12 company members play more than one role.
There is music throughout the show. Hanif Khan sits on the lip of the stage with his set of tabla drums, while the whirring of kites is created by cast members whirling large hand rattles, similar to those used by football crowds until the 1960s. This is something a book can’t do: give you the sounds of Kabul before the Taleban – ‘those big-bearded idiots’ as Baba aptly observes – took the fun out of everything.
The narrative through line for the piece is delivered by the time honoured mechanism of Amir speaking directly to the audience, often quoting sections of the novel verbatim. This is the way it’s done so often when converting large sections of exposition and inner monologue in a book to the stage, and it works fine.
If the writing in the novel is a bit paint by numbers, then so is the acting, but this is not a piece that calls for bravura performances. All the actors serve the piece admirably. Ahmad is more convincing as a man than as a boy, but there’s little else to fault in the performance. Andrei Costin is suitably pathetic as Hassan, one of life’s honourable losers, even if his accent does sound uncannily like Andy Kaufman at Latka in Taxi.
At press night the performance received such a near universal standing ovation that it was possible for a moment to imagine that this was New York, not London. New York audiences love their standing ovations; it’s their chance to get in on the act after two and half hours of enforced silence and stillness.
Perhaps London is becoming more like New York. But perhaps it’s is just starved of old-fashioned, people-pleasing tear jerkers. The Kite Runner delivers.