Matthew Spanglerʼs first foray into adapting text for stage came 22 years ago, at the University of Sussex, with a performance of Conradʼs Heart of Darkness. Fast forward two decades, and Spanglerʼs work returns to the Brighton stage, with Khaled Hosseiniʼs bestselling novel The Kite Runner at the Theatre Royal.

The audience enters the theatre to the captivating sound of Hanif Khanʼs tabla, an instrument that he commands with incredible dexterity and grace. With the stage set simply and effectively, the audience is immediately transported to Kabul, with its sloping rooftops and warm orange-tinged light. Two large fans on either side of the stage successfully represent both location and important narrative elements.

Amir (David Ahmad) is excellent in this production, switching roles between the child he used to be, and the omniscient, retrospective narrator of the present. His physicalisation and characterisation is impressive to say the least: Amir, the child, is flawed but ultimately endearing and likeable. Amir the man, desperate to find “a way to be good again”, is a more problematic character but Ahmad portrays him with honesty and energy.

The real star of the show, however, is Jo Ben Ayed, taking on the roles of Hassan and his son Sorab. He is ever-patient and longsuffering, yet retains a strong and silent dignity throughout. To be able to play a character who speaks so little yet says so much is truly masterful. Rahim Khan (Karl Seth) delivers the vast majority of the production’s gut-wrenching, quotable dialogue. On the topic of Amir not quite living up to his fatherʼs expectations, he delivers the arresting line: “children are not colouring books. You donʼt get to fill them in with your favourite colours.”

William Simpsonʼs stunning use of projection plays a large and important role in this production. When Rahim Khan tells Amir of the execution of Hassan and his wife by the Taliban, the action unfolds behind them, with projected silhouetted figures.

Often, it is what remains unseen that is the most enlightening. The on-stage representation of extreme violence can be gratuitous and shocking – and more often than not, not necessarily for the good of the performance. The sensitive handling of some of the most arresting elements of the performance ensured that the audience grasped the gravitas of the situations presented, without being turned off by a depiction that could easily have become unbelievable. A notable example of this masterful staging and design is a moment during the performance in which Amir and his father escaped the terrifying reality that their country had become. The stage in its entirety became black, colourless and stark, with a single beam of light falling on the actors. How, really, can any set designer or director portray the true horrors of crossing the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan in a drained oil tanker, overpowered by the stench of faeces and vomit, close to death? The answer is, you canʼt. This performance relied on Hosseiniʼs descriptions of these unthinkable events and situations, and it did so with incredible delicacy and tact.

In the preview for this piece, I voiced my concern as to whether the stage adaptation of The Kite Runner would live up to and remain true to the beauty of the novel that so many have read and loved over the past 14 years. It transpires that Matthew Spangler met and workshopped the text with Khaled Hosseini himself many times, crediting him as “the most generous and supportive collaborator [he] could possibly imagine.” This exciting revelation, and the fact that I simply canʼt stop thinking about the production, days after the curtain call, means my verdict is a resounding yes.

Image Credit: Betty Laura Zapata

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Alison Collins

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