Wise adaptation flying high

Ben Turner as the boy Amir and Farshid Rokey as his ill-fated friend Hassan. Pictures: Robert Day

The Kite Runner

Nottingham Playhouse

*****

The splendid Giles Croft is into his 15th year at the helm of the modernist-designed Nottingham Playhouse, and his copious talent doesn't look like failing him. 

Croft has a gift for spotting and ferreting out scripts – polished during his time as Literary Manager at the National under Richard Eyre. Before that, in a five year stint, he anticipated Stephen Daldry in perking up West London's Gate Theatre; then staged Anna Karenina at Watford during his time there, and sat on the board of those cutting-edge innovators, Paines Plough.  

Giles Croft's own productions, 50 years from its opening, have kept the Modern movement Playhouse complex, John Neville's flagship Midland company and Nottingham's international reputation, just where they need to be: out in front.

Chicken Soup with Barley, The Burial at Thebes (Seamus Heaney's take on Antigone), Vertigo, All Quiet on the Western Front (soon to be revived) a brilliantly acted play about Brian Clough, these figure among a swathe of Nottingham, triumphs.  

And now comes The Kite Runner. Give the tear-jerking material of Kabul-born Khaled Hosseini's book, unafraid to edge into touchy areas, the whole narrative a coming-of-age story laced with pain, one might feel almost a compunction, a politically correct duty, to applaud this staging.

Ben Turner (right) as the grown-up Amir with Farshid Rokey, doubling as his friend's son Sohrab

But there is no such need. Modest, unostentatious, sensitive, finger on the pulse, breathtakingly restrained and imaginative, this is a major dramatic achievement, one that deserves to rank high among 2013's plays of the year.   

Much hinges on Matthew Spangler's authorised adaptation, closely discussed with the author, a loyal and skilled compaction that preserves so much of the humility, spirit and up-tight intensity of the original. There is beauty in the script, the cast – beautifully honest and thoughtful performances by any standards – and in the relationship between the boys established here by Farshid Roki (the doomed Hassan) and Ben Turner (the chastened survivor, Amir). 

I will give the game away. It is inevitable that Rokey, an actor of quite astonishing understatement and gestural subtlety, will resurrect (his original character having been mercilessly excised by the ghastly Taliban) as his own son, Sohrab. Rokey, like the others, appears in a couple of company roles (some rather good bus queues and immigration sequences stand out, for instance); but is removed from sight just long enough to surprise us with his (scintillatingly monochromed) appearance as the lost boy named after the 11th century Persian classic, Sohrab and Rustum.  

His very name ensures we are plugged into an epic past, of generations yielding one to another, of flowers that flourish even after their parents are scythed down. A generation that may, who knows, give new life after the failure of monarchy, the ineptness of Communism and the brutalist smugness of the worst manifestations of Islam, the religion this play determinedly hymns.                   

Splendid though Ben Turner's aspiring novelist Amir was, he always primarily triumphed when playing the boy, aeroplaning around like Christian Bale's Jim Graham in Empire of the Sun, flattened by the puzzles of well-heeled paternal reprimands (as Baba, the utterly excellent, fine-honed, money-made aristocratic Emilio Doorgasingh: excellent even when luck swings against him); never quite as convincing when self-asserting (against Antony Bunsee's equally splendid, Djinnah-like, proud father-in-law General Taheri); curiously though presumably deliberately unaging; and with an iffily practised American accent which is only, after many emotional jarrings, explained later.  

Antony Bunsee as Taheri, the Afghan general on the run

You'd have thought - even if only spurred by at the jibe ‘faggot' – he'd have a go at his tormentors, for Amir never seems pacifistic like Rokey's Hassan. Which only reminds us how very young these boys must have been.  

Yet when the eyes open in unabashed optimism, and the voice matches, this British Iranian actor, just 33, can be quite magical, and a compelling honesty shines through. ‘We were kids who's learned to crawl together.' Exactly.   

These two elders, to whom add the dignified, pleasingly versatile Nicholas Khan (as Rahim Khan), a kind of Great War leftover who excels as the crucial family friend (who befriends the boy and will mastermind the book's ultimate - fraternal - reconciliation), as the ex-Third Reich doctor and sundry other nicely nursed medium roles, contribute a vast amount to Croft's team, in a staging that is riddled with fine detail, some of it so subtle you almost don't see it. 

But the younger lot, including the mid- to late-teenage bullies, emerge well too. Nicholas Karimi has the plums, and never wastes them; as excellent as a praying wedding attendant as abysmally plotting the cowardly rape he inflicts on Hassan (only just offstage) which destroys the two younger boys' relationship.  

Is it the event which wrecks it, or the guilt that follows; or – not to exonerate the bullies, whose entire manner anticipates the Taliban - is it possibly coming anyway: is it called adolescence? Is the hero's flight, in this ideal world so brilliantly captured in earlier scenes, not just from sexual abuse, and the knowledge of it, but from the whispers of sexuality itself? 

Childhood rites of passage tormentor and adult villain are in fact the same person; the loathsome Assef. Karimi resurfaces as the Taliban warlord who fancies himself as John Lennon but is (still) a ritual psychopath, who plays with terror as if boys were his Barbie dolls.  

But the stroke of special genius from these mid-age extras (though no one in this tight-pulling team could really be dubbed an extra) comes from David Ahmad, in an astounding late vignette (freed from his young thug role) depicting the director of a time-marooned children's home. Hosseini could almost write another book about him. Ahmad has almost as many facial permutations, all movingly apt, as Rokey; as the orphanage head, Zaman, he established himself in two minutes flat as an actor of poignancy, of real moment.  

That a set with only two main ideas – plus some nicely planned ramps which give interesting angles and levels to the cast's entries – could be so arresting is pretty astounding. Barney George's design, coupled integrally with William Simpson's special and unique projections, wrought wonders.

I never quite fathomed how a simple Pashtun  palisade converts to a Los Angeles skyline, then to the most spectacularly beautiful purpled wedding backdrop (when Amir marries the general's daughter, Lisa Zahra's stocky, worldly-wise Soraya).  

Simpson, with Charles Balfour on lights, seemed able to fit any projection to not just a row of sticks, but to the evening's most brilliant conceit – glorious, because it so economically evokes and cherishes the central Asian atmosphere - of a pair of curtain that descend like butterfly's wings: more importantly, like a kite. Even the kitelets on the blue cyclorama during the curtain calls, like whispered echoes, are cleverly evocative; a lost era summed up.  

But The Kite Runner is a nasty play in many ways, as racist as a play can get: majority Farsi-speaking Pashtun against lower-class Hazara, Sunni confronting Shia: a socio-religious set-up with an extremely nasty smell that make Romeo and Juliet seem pure child's play. ‘Someone has to take the garbage out.' This is what Hosseini is pleading against; and this is what Farshid Rokey's Hassan, the flat-nosed Hazara, the garbage if you like, becomes the symbol for. 

Emilio Doorgasingh as Amir's dapper father, Baba

I lost count of the characteristics and half-gestures that gave Rokey's acting such weight, drawing you in, winning your sympathy, exploring the child in childhood: a sideway flick, lowered face, raised eyebrows, a blink, furrowed concentration, slouched shoulders, desperate glances, wan expectation, hint of understanding; self-inflicted silences, taking no notice, absorption, deference; a deep, deep innocence being slowly carved into and then crushed and gushing away. How many other roles could Rokey play, I thought? Wrong. He can do many, and Giles Croft will have a good idea which, and how to bring them out.  

The characters in this play ought to develop, and change, by the time the play reaches Liverpool. So deep are its textures, so much more will there always be to prise out still from its layered text. A skyscraper of a work, floor above floor, just like the ones we see onstage. And (Brighton Festival performances already being planned), it should, must, travel to London.  

Civilisations evolve, humans usually don't. Except in the process of coming of age, which this production explores so intelligently. ‘Children aren't like colouring books: you don't get to colour them in with all your favourite colours.' c 

When Amir accuses Hassan of the same cowardice his father has just cursed him for, the truth to life, our almost universal hypocrisy, rings through. Irony writ large. 

‘There is a way to be good again,' urges the wise, instinctive Rahim Khan. Arthur Miller-like by the end, this is a wise book, in a wise adaptation, in a wise, and wisely paced, production. To 18-05-13

Roderic Dunnett 

:Nottingham Playhouse 0115 941 9419  www.nottinghamplayhouse.co.uk

Then Liverpool Playhouse Thu 13 Jun to Sat 6 July  www.everymanplayhouse.com

Brighton Festival (Theatre Royal) Tues 21-Fri 25 May  01273 709709 www.brightonfestival. 

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