David Ahmad as Amir and Jo Ben Ayed as Hassan. Photo: Betty Laura Zapata
Two plays about displaced persons have stood out in recent months: Helen Edmundson’s adaptation of Andrea Levy’s novel Small Island and here, at the start of its tour after a run in the West End, Matthew Spangler’ powerful dramatisation of Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner (kite-fighting being the sport of Kabul’s boys, its object being to cut a rival’s strings).
Both are sprawling narratives made theatrically coherent and give their audiences an opportunity to critically reassess Western policies of the times in which they are set. They also share Dickensian qualities: time-honoured plot devices such as coincidence, which provide symmetry and make the play artistically satisfying. Both, appropriately, left me feeling uncomfortable.
This play, like the book, is narrated through the eyes of the chief protagonist. As Amir, David Ahmad admirably carries the weight of the dialogue on his shoulder. His story is initially anti-heroic and by the interval we despise him almost as much as he hates himself. Again, I was reminded of characters such as Pip in Great Expectations, who also wins back our sympathy precisely because he was a flawed human being, as many of us are, and ultimately redeems himself for his bad behaviour. As Rhamin Khan (Christopher Glover) tells Amir in the build up to the exciting, penultimate scenes: “there is a way to be good again.”
Amir has an uncomfortable relationship with his domineering though well-meaning widowed father, Baba – a strong, layered performance from Dean Rehman – who holds conventional views of how his son should live his life and wisely tells him “there is only one great sin – theft,” meaning theft in its broadest sense (e.g. adultery, which he turns out to have been guilty of). Amir having, as he sees it, killed his mother in childbirth, longs to win Baba’s respect, and hopes to do so by winning the local kite tournament as his father had once done.
If tribal warfare, class status and human rights provide the context for the story, its moral core focuses on Amir’s personal journey towards self-atonement for the shocking way he behaves towards his best friend Hassan – the son of Baba’s servant of forty years, Ali – who adores him and whom he betrays. Hassan tells Amir when he protects him: “for you a thousand times over”, a line that comes to haunt him.
It is Hassan who has the stronger character and is Amir’s eponymous kite runner, with his special ability to guess where a defeated kite has landed and retrieving it to ensure his partner’s victory. As Hassan, Andrei Costin is both gently endearing and courageous with a delightful fleet-footedness. It was a nice touch to have him play his own son in the poignant final scenes.
In the first half we travel with Amir and Hassan through their childhood from the tail end of the peaceful years of the early ‘70s to the turbulent fall of the monarchy in 1973 and 1979 Soviet invasion. Both boys are played by the adult actors, which allows Amir to move in a comma from his role as story-teller back into the action.
Already, the shift in politics has begun to undermine the lives of people of certain religious /ethnic groups, including the affluent Baba (a Pashtun) and Ali and Hassan (who are Hazaras). The key section in this part sets in motion the rest of the plot and deals with the boys’ intimidation by Assef, the local bully. Assef, disturbingly played by Bhavin Bhatt, especially likes to humiliate Hassan for being a Hazara, although it is Hassan himself who eventually comes to Amir’s rescue by threatening him with his slingshot. On the day of the tournament, as Hassan goes to retrieve the grounded kite, Assef traps Hassan and, helped by his henchmen, treats him harrowingly. A terrified Amir witnesses the crime, unseen, then overcome by guilt, goes into denial. Things will never be the same between the boys again. This sequence is all the more appalling for allowing words to take the place of the worst of the action which is perpetrated behind a screen.
After the interval, Amir and Baba flee with Baba, first to Pakistan and then to California where Amir meets and, after winning over her father, marries Soraya (Lisa Zahra). In a colourful wedding ceremony. Amir briefly but significantly returns to his home country which by the mid-90s was in the hands of and had been defiled by The Taliban, not long before the atrocities of 9/11. I was somewhat relieved that scenes like that in the film where a football match is interrupted for the brutal execution of an adulteress were omitted, although such atrocities are referred to in the excellent programme.
In addition to the leads, there are strong supporting performances all round, including Ian Abeysekera as Soraya’s father who still thinks the same rules apply in the USA as they did back home – and I’d have liked to have seen more of Baba’s friend and Amir’s mentor, Rahmin, earlier on.
If I have a small criticism of the play, it would have added more vocal variety if some of the narration could have been passed around to the other actors. It says much for Ahmad’s performance and Giles Croft’s deceptively simple staging – aided by excellent lighting and projections – and the versatility of the other twelve actors, that our attention is held throughout.
Katy Winter graces the production with some nicely choreographed moments, and there are also some well-staged fights directed by Philip d’Orléans, whilst the handling of the kites, helped by the atmospheric lighting design and projections, lend visual poetry. The use of a tabla player (Hanif Khan) and singing bowls provide authentic sound.
A complex, nuanced narrative brought vividly alive. The enthusiastic ovation at the end was thoroughly deserved.