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A prize-winning blockbuster smash when it was published in 2003, Khaled Hosseini’s novel The Kite Runner went on to sell over 30 million copies in 60 languages. A multi-decade-spanning family saga about an Afghan-American immigrant haunted by his traumatic childhood in 1970s Kabul, the story inspired a handsome but bloodless film version in 2007, directed by Marc Forster. First staged in the U.S. in 2009, drama professor Matthew Spangler’s theatrical adaptation made its U.K. debut in 2013 as a joint production between the Nottingham Playhouse and Liverpool Everyman theaters.
It is perhaps significant that Giles Croft’s production, which has finally arrived in London with most of its key cast intact, took so long to secure a West End berth. Though faithful and dutiful, this over-earnest adaptation has few of the stylistic flourishes and emotional epiphanies that elevate middlebrow literature into great theater. The prose of Hosseini’s novel is here, but not the poetry. All the same, the book’s enduring popularity should ensure a healthy audience for this respectful adaptation, with reading groups and school parties likely to boost ticket sales.
Bookish Amir (British TV actor Ben Turner) is an only child growing up in 1970s Afghanistan with his wealthy widower father Baba (Emilio Doorgasingh). Amir’s family belongs to the dominant Pashtun majority, who are Sunni Muslims, while his best friend is his father’s servant’s son Hassan (Andrei Costin), who belongs to the Hazara ethnic group and Shi’a Muslim minority. Any wider cultural tensions between the two boys are rarely an issue until neighborhood bully Assef (Nicholas Karimi) begins picking on Hassan. A violent, racist sociopath, Assef eventually beats and rapes Hassan while a terrified Amir hides out of view, leaving him with a deep sense of shame for the rest of his life.
Following the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, Amir and his father become refugees, finally settling in the Bay Area in 1981. The young immigrant grows up, marries fellow Afghan exile Soraya (Lisa Zahra) and launches a career as a writer. But in 2001, shortly before the 9/11 attacks, a fateful phone call lures Amir back to his troubled homeland for a final reckoning with Assef, and with Hassan’s orphaned son Sohrab (also played by Costin) in Taliban-controlled Kabul. It’s a potentially lethal mission, but it offers the guilt-wracked Amir “a way to be good again.”
Inevitably, Croft’s production lacks both the textured detail of the novel and the visual spectacle of the film. Spangler’s literal-minded text dutifully lays out the narrative in mostly chronological and naturalistic manner, although Amir frequently steps out of the action to serve as first-person narrator. This wordy treatment becomes ungainly at times, relying on long chunks of exposition and description instead of finding a visual language to bring the story alive as theater.
With a marathon running time of almost three hours, including intermission, the production also drags a little. While he compresses much of the novel’s narrative, Spangler includes some minor episodes missing from the film, slowing down the second act and diluting the emotional impact of the climactic confrontation between Amir and Assef. Scenes of violence, especially sexual violence, are mostly treated with a coy restraint that will play better with all-ages audiences, but robs them of their harrowing dramatic force.
The Kite Runner mostly works on the level of childlike fable, satisfyingly schematic but frustratingly simplistic. The characters are painted in primary colors, their motivations mostly reducible to a single personality trait. Proud, domineering patriarch? Check. Unhinged, sadistic, sexually depraved villain? Check. Overly innocent protagonist who neatly atones for his childhood cowardice with implausible adult courage? Check. Psychological complexity is thin on the ground, as is any historical and political context about Afghanistan’s tortuous history.
But Croft’s production does have some redeeming features. There is an appealing energy to Turner’s versatile, robust performance as he switches nimbly between boyhood and adulthood, Pashto and English, his accent evolving to track Amir’s globe-trotting journey. Karimi also brings real animal menace to the cackling, leering, predatory Assef, however overblown the caricature. The dialogue may be low on laughs, but the rare jokes have an agreeably dark flavor: “I don’t think there’s a more Afghan way to die than stepping on a land mine.” Ouch.
A number of full-ensemble set-pieces also stand out, including a balletic kite-flying sequence, a traditional Afghan wedding and a delightfully incongruous dance number celebrating San Francisco at the height of disco. Also noteworthy is Barney George’s elegantly spare set design, which deploys giant kite-like wings as both interior scenery and projection screens. Hanif Khan’s onstage tabla-playing is another pleasing touch, hinting at the sensory riches that remain largely latent in this overly tasteful production.
Venue: Wyndham’s Theatre, London
Cast: Ben Turner, Andrei Costin, Emilio Doorgasingh, Lisa Zahra, Nicholas Karimi, David Ahmad, Bhavin Bhatt, Antony Bunsee, Hanif Khan, Nicholas Khan, Johndeep More
Director: Giles Croft
Playwright: Matthew Spangler, based on the novel by Khaled Hosseini
Set designer: Barney George
Lighting designer: Charles Balfour
Sound designer: Drew Baumohl
Music & musical director: Jonathan Girling
Projection designer: William Simpson
Movement director: Kitty Winter
Fight director: Philip d’Orleans
Presented by: Nottingham Playhouse and Liverpool Everyman
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