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The Kite Runner

by on 11 March 2020

Frequent Flyers

The Kite Runner

by Khaled Hosseini, adapted by Matthew Spangler

UK Productions and  Flying Entertainment. at Richmond Theatre until 14th March, then on tour until 4th July

Review by Andrew Lawston

In 1970s Kabul, kite-fighting is all the rage. Amir, the creative son of a prominent businessman, flies kites and plays cowboys with his servant and close companion, Hassan, until a terrible incident separates the pair forever. Years later, as a writer living in California, Amir still struggles to deal with his guilt from the childhood tragedy. He is finally offered a chance to atone for his past cowardice, but will he seize the opportunity?

The Kite Runner, adapted by Matthew Spangler from Khaled Hosseini’s best-selling 2003 novel, offers the audience at Richmond Theatre a fascinating if frequently harrowing look at Afghanistan’s turbulent history in the late 20th Century.

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The first act focuses on Amir and Hassan’s childhood, up until their separation in the late 1970s. David Ahmad alternates between an adult American accent as the grown-up Amir and the play’s narrator, and a childlike Afghan accent as the younger Amir. He switches between the two effortlessly, and with exuberant body language to match Amir’s younger self. Andrei Costin gives the stand-out performance as Hassan, the eponymous kite runner whose meekly subservient dialogue is undercut by his fierce devotion to Amir, and his immense dignity in the face of his cruel treatment.

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Amir’s father, Baba, is played by Dean Rehman in a strong performance that develops throughout from authoritative scotch-sipping Kabul businessman to principled but humble flea market vendor. His friend Rahim Khan (Christopher Glover) manages to convey the heart of the play, full of wise words and advice for Amir throughout his life. Hassan’s father Ali doesn’t get a huge amount to do within the play, but conveys a humble but dignified man, and his low-key confrontation with Baba when he resigns is powerful.

Against all these dignified performances that shelter deep passions and dark secrets, The Kite Runner also provides a solidly unpleasant villain in the form of Bhavin Bhatt’s Assef. From his first appearance, it’s clear that this menacing youth is far more dangerous than the average bully figure that pops up in coming-of-age narratives.

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The second act covers a period of over twenty years, jumping between California, Pakistan, Kabul, and back again. As such it sometimes feels a bit choppy, in spite, or perhaps because of, director Giles Croft’s smooth and pacy direction. Given the span of time covered by the play, the tone also begins to feel uneven. The play’s next confrontation between Amir and an older Assef sees the bully transformed almost into a caricature figure, and his final pratfall, complete with windmilling arms, struck a bit of a discord considering the context.

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It’s in the second half that Lisa Zahra steps forward from the ensemble to play Soraya, the only significant female role in the production, and she gives a spirited performance, particularly when telling Amir about a teenage adventure that provoked the wrath and shame of her staunchly conservative father General Taheri (Ian Abeysekera, playing with just enough of a twinkle in his eye to stop the patrician character sliding into stereotype territory). It would have been great to see more of Soraya, as her main function is to illustrate his ongoing spinelessness in conversations with General Taheri.

When a play is adapted from such a widely-read and comparatively recent book (and film adaptation), there is a whole conversation to be had about to what extent audiences will be aware of the story’s twists and turns, and thus how much care should be taken when foreshadowing them. I’m faintly embarrassed to say that I came to Richmond completely ignorant of the story, but within ten minutes I was extremely confident as to certain revelations that inevitably popped up in the second act.

Throughout, however, Barney George’s design is wonderfully evocative of the play’s Afghan setting, while opening out the full width of Richmond Theatre’s stage. The swooping kites become an effective motif, with two huge kites forming a backcloth for projected backgrounds during many of the Kabul scenes.

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Jonathan Girling’s musical direction is similarly evocative, using instruments including tabla, Tibetan Singing Bowls, and Schwirrbogen. During set-piece scenes such as the kite-fighting tournament, the instruments, played live on stage, come together to produce a fantastic soundscape that conjures up the roar of the wind and the excitement of the spectators.

The Kite Runner is strongest in those scenes set in 1970s Kabul, and during some of the meatier dialogues in the second half: Soraya’s speech to Amir during their courtship, for example, and Amir’s final meeting with Rahim Khan. At other times it feels like a dizzying scattergun of a production: plenty to enjoy, but rarely enough time to truly savour it.

Andrew Lawston
March 2020

Photography by Manuel Harlan

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