What’s surprising about this theatrical adaptation of The Kite Runner is that its world premiere was as long ago as March 2009 – it’s taken almost eight years to reach the West End, a long wait given the runaway success of the novel and the motion picture. This production likes to keep things simple, for the most part, in terms of staging. I loved how not every single thing was acted out. It was as if the audience was assumed to have intelligence, and a good deal of it, to know by way of the spoken dialogue, that a car journey is a car journey without actors miming opening doors, ‘getting in’ and closing the doors, one of them holding an imaginary steering wheel and both of them bouncing up and down to indicate movement. Not that there isn’t any miming: how would one feasibly go about credibly flying a kite in an indoor proscenium arch auditorium?
The play lets itself down in the opening scenes. In the audio commentary that accompanies the film, the creatives talk about using Dari and Pashto, the official languages of Afghanistan, as well as English, dependent on whom is speaking with whom and in what context. That is fine in a film – indeed, as the creatives point out, film audiences find it more authentic when conversations are carried out in the language in which they would naturally be expected to be conducted, and there are subtitles to translate. The problem here with the play is that there are no subtitles provided, and the audience therefore has no idea what is going on. There are, these days, ways and means of ‘surtitling’ (with words above rather than below); the Royal Opera House, for instance, makes regular use of this. Huge chunks of dialogue between Amir (Ben Turner) and Hassan (Andrei Costin) are thus missed. Mercifully, this is only true, as I say, of the opening scenes.
Even so, alienating audiences so early on is a real pity, particularly as both actors inhabit their characters so well. The portrayal of them as children is rather like that of Mickey and Eddie in the early scenes of Blood Brothers. Here, though, Turner’s Amir also acts as narrator, repeatedly directly engaging the audience. I was pleasantly surprised at how much of the book is included in the play, given both the breadth and depth of the salient themes. Some periphery details, almost inevitably, have been cast aside. And yet, this show gives the impression that it isn’t in a hurry to tell its story, despite its relatively sprightly pace.
It’s an incredibly hospitable production, too, insofar as the audience is spared the ‘hair-dryer treatment’. I suspect if this had been a Royal Shakespeare Company production, for example, there would have been considerably more shouting going on. And, given the war zone setting, a lot more fake blood. Even when Farid (Ezra Faroque Khan) yells at Zaman (David Ahmad), or Amir has an outburst at Rahim Khan (Nicholas Khan), it’s entirely believable without being ear-piercing. If anything, the play is almost too calm, but it suits a British audience, understated yet enlightening.
I have no idea whether the accents in this show are properly authentic, and remain undecided as to whether it really matters. Aside from Ben Turner as Amir, who is as central to this play as Christopher Boone is in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, there are stand-out performances from Assef (Nicholas Karimi) and Baba (Emilio Doorgasingh). Some mesmerising music comes from Hanif Khan, single-handedly providing a distinct Afghan atmosphere to proceedings, a presence as constant on-stage as Turner’s.
This is a hard-hitting play, running the full gamut of human emotion from the joy of an engagement to multiple tragedies – and not just at the hands of the Taliban. It’s truly felt by the audience, too: at various times hearty laughter ripples across the auditorium, other times audible weeping. A deep and challenging production.
London lad, loving life and all that it has to offer.