Khaled Hosseini’s first novel, published in 2003, is a modern classic. A story about friendship, betrayal and redemption, it’s sold millions of copies worldwide, and was made into an award-winning movie in 2007, before being adapted for the stage by Matthew Spangler two years later.
(It’s also one of my favourite novels, so I didn’t wait around until press night to see the play on its arrival at Wyndham’s Theatre just before Christmas. Consequently this review is based on one of the earliest previews, and it’s possible some aspects of the show may have changed since then.)
The Kite Runner tells the story of Amir and Hassan – one the son of a rich businessman, the other the son of his Hazara servant – whose close friendship is shattered in one shocking moment of betrayal. More than 20 years later, after fleeing the Soviet invasion and starting a new life in America with his father, Amir receives a call that offers him a chance of redemption… but to take it he must return to Afghanistan and confront the demons of his past.
It’s a story that skilfully interweaves Amir’s personal journey with the historical and political story of his country, and Giles Croft’s production faithfully follows that same narrative. While Amir (Ben Turner, who plays both Afghan child and American adult) shares his account of events, there are frequent reminders of the home he left behind – but which, despite his efforts to move on, never left him. Tabla player Hanif Khan provides percussive accompaniment throughout, while Barney George’s set features a huge kite, on to which is projected beautiful backdrop imagery (designed by William Simpson), and which becomes a symbol of the culture and passion that united the two friends, but also the fateful day that tore them apart.
Said kite also mercifully shields our view of the traumatic pivotal moment, but Amir’s reaction to and description of it evoke all the horror I remember feeling the first time I read the novel. Because this is far from an easy story; there are a few laughs and one particularly joyful scene in Act 2 (though even this has a shadow of sadness to it), but the most powerful moments are undoubtedly those that shock us and break our hearts. Much like any tragedy – personal or national – the glimmer of hope in the play’s closing scene can’t undo the damage that’s been done.
As both narrator and main character in a play lasting nearly three hours, Ben Turner has quite a task, but he performs it to perfection – at times you can almost see the guilt weighing on his shoulders. But while Amir is the voice and conscience of the story, its heart lies in the people around him: Hassan (Andrei Costin), who remains unfailingly loyal despite his betrayal; his wife Soraya (Lisa Zahra), who hears his story and forgives him; his father (Emilio Doorgasingh), with whom he finally develops a mutual respect; and Rahim Khan (Nicholas Khan), the family friend who offers him his chance of redemption. Through their eyes – and the excellent cast performances – we see a different Amir: a man not destroyed by guilt, but with the chance to be good again.
I know I say this every time, but seeing an adaptation of a beloved book is always a gamble. Fortunately, I have no complaints about The Kite Runner, which is as thought-provoking, powerful and emotionally scarring (I mean that in a good way… I think) as Hosseini’s novel. Yes, it’s a long evening – but it’s worth every second.
The Kite Runner is at Wyndham’s Theatre until 11th March.