When The Kite Runner was first published in 2003, Afghanistan was familiar to many people as a news story, the stunning craggy backdrop to war. Khaled Hosseini’s unforgettable novel introduced readers to the Afghanistan he knew as a child: you left the book not only haunted by the personal tale of guilt and redemption but also deeply moved by the vivid evocation of the land and its culture and the damage wrought by war and Taliban rule. It became a modern classic, has sold millions of copies worldwide and been turned into a major film.
Adapting the story for stage presents a challenge. Matthew Spangler’s dramatisation, worked on with Hosseini’s help and blessing, rightly seizes on the potent personal story at the heart of the novel: the tale of two boys, Amir and his father’s servant Hassan, brought up as near brothers in the same house. The staging traces their story simply and vivaciously: carefree afternoons become slightly spiked by the growing awareness of the differences between them; Amir starts to resent both Hassan’s loyalty and sunny personality; then a vicious attack on Hassan by the local thug leaves Amir facing his own cowardice and changes their lives forever. All this, and the symbolic weight of Amir’s guilt, comes across superbly.
But what is harder to deliver is the context: the novel roams through decades and across continents, is brilliantly evocative and is written in the first person. Spangler keeps the first-person structure, having Amir act as narrator to his own story. This keeps the essential sense of the adult torn with guilt by his past, but while this structure works so well on the page, on stage it always makes for a slightly awkward experience, in which the characters appear in short illustrative episodes, rather than driving the story. It’s very well done here (in a co-production with Liverpool Playhouse, where it plays in June), staged with great fluidity by Giles Croft on a simple evocative set (Barney George), but this difficulty is always going to hamper it as a piece of drama. Meanwhile the sheer scale of the book means that it becomes a bit of a whistle-stop tour.
It’s beautifully performed, however, by a versatile ensemble, and what the staging does celebrate wonderfully is the crucial relationship at the heart of the story. Ben Turner’s intense mix of anguish and self-loathing as Amir is both moving and painful, while Farshid Rokey is simply excellent as Hassan.