Simple tale beautifully told

Amir and Hassan

Boyhood friends: Amir (Ben Turner) and Hassan (Andrei Costin), a deadly shot with a catapult. Photos: Robert Day

The Kite Runner

Birmingham Rep

*****

FOR reviewers, occasionally it is a struggle to stay awake, sometimes a struggle to even stay, and then . . . along comes a Kite Runner and you settle back and remember what theatre is all about and why reviewing is one of life’s great treasures.

The Kite Runner is funny, at times, sad, much of the time, emotive and brutal with a story told with minimal but remarkably clever setting, which means it relies on the art of acting to bring it alive, and give it life this fine cast did.

Ben Turner is simply stunning as the hero, or at least main character, Amir, the Afghan boy from a rich family who lives through the time of peace, revolution and finally the Russian invasion, the point when Amir’s father decides enough is enough and escapes with his son on a journey which takes them as poor immigrants to California.

Turner is on stage for all but a few moments and for two and a half hours he is simply mesmerising in a masterclass of the actor’s art. We feel for him, sometimes contempt, sometimes compassion, but at least we understand, we are for him and against him as we see him grow from a boy, playing with his childhood friend, and servant, Hassan, played by Andrei Costin.

Early scenes have echoes of Blood Brothers with Turner and Costin adults playing children. Costin, also plays Hassan’s son Sohrab, not that you would know apart from the obvious physical similarities, in another memorable performance.

Emilio Doorgasingh is Amir’s father, Baba, a rich merchant in pre-war Kabul reduced to working in a filling station after escaping to the USA.

The play revolves around the relationship between the three, with Amir trying to please his father and never quite managing it, even when he wins the biggest annual kite flying competition for years in Kabul.

Hassan is a kite runner, the best in Kabul, if not the whole of Afghanistan, running in the chase to claim the defeated kites cut from the skies in the aerial dogfights. His final run, to capture the greatest prize, the last kite cut from the skies, the runner-up, leads to the horrific incident with the local bully Assef, an incident that changes lives of all three main characters.

In a selfish act to compound a shameful act AFlying a kitemir betrays the still loyal Hassan wrecking both his life and the life of his father, Ali, (Ezrah Khan) Baba’s servant of more than 40 years. The servants, out of honour, leave out of a shame not of their making.

It is an act which also changes the life of Amir. An act so shameful he dare not tell his father for fear he will be despised, and despite the constant daily reminder of Hassan having been cruelly removed by an act of treachery, the mark of shame is still branded in his mind and Amir is left searching for recognition, a sort of forgiveness, in a relationship with his father on the one hand and a chance  of atonement for the cowardly act of a boy against his friend on the other.

Hassan and  Amir flying the winning kite with Baba (Emilio Doorgasingh) and Rahim Kha (Nicholas Khan) in the background

Rahim Khan as one of his father’s friends gives the now married and successful writer Amir that chance, a dangerous, difficult and demanding chance, but a chance none the less.

It brings Amir into contact once again with his nemesis, the psychopathic Assef, who had made his childhood a misery and set in train the destruction of Amir’s happy life. Assef has found his niche making the life of a whole population a misery as a Taliban official. Nicholas Karimi is truly frightening in the role, he exudes a deadly mix of evil and violence. He gives us a man out of control whose greatest pleasure appears to be inflicting pain, hurt and humiliation and who finds a welcome within the Taliban.

And a mention here for the director Giles Croft who keeps the real scenes of violence and terror offstage. It is a lesson that could be learned in film and TV and even in some stage productions. The most terrifying acts of violence, tightest grip of fear are created by imagination. We never see nor hear the act upon which the play revolves yet we feel it just as much as Amir. In our mind we are there with him.

I have not read Khaled Hosseini’s novel upon which Matthew Spangler’s adaptation is based but my wife said it was true to the book so those seeing the play of a best-selling book they have read should not be disappointed.

And if, like me, you have not read it, it matters not a jot; this is a play which stands squarely on its own with a tale to tell and telling it well.

There is good support from Antony Bunsee as General Taheri and Lisa Zahra as his daughter Soraya, who is to become Amir’s wife, as well as Ezra Khan, Bhavin Bhatt and David Ahmad in a variety of roles in a fine cast.

Music is an integral part of the production with the haunting sound of singing bowls and internationally renowned Indian musician sitting Hanif Khan cross-legged on a mat providing a near constant background of rhythmic drumming on tablas, the intensity and volume following and at times driving the narrative.

There is also clever use of Schwirrbogen – no, I had never heard of them either – which are swung around like large football rattles, without the rattle, to produce a sound of rushing air to represent when kites are flying.

The set design by Barney George is a masterpiece of simplicity. A back wall black for Afghanistan, stylised skyline for the USA, a terracotta tile floor with two low ramps like a skateboard park at ether side, two huge drapes, like the wings of a kite which ascend and descend to vary the staging and a large plain carpet changed by Charles Balfour’s excellent lighting to all manner of traditional carpet patterns.

This is a story of relationships between Amir and his father, between Amir and Hassan and between the Sunni Pashtuns and the Shia Hazara, who the Pashtuns look down upon. But above all it is a very human story and a wonderful piece of theatre. To 04-10-14.

Roger Clarke

22-09-14 

The Kite Runner's tour brings it back to the Midlands from 20 - 25 October2014 at the

 Theatre Severn Shrewsbury 

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