Thursday, 12 January 2017

Review The Kite Runner

The Kite Runner
Adapted by Matthew Spangler
Based On The Novel by Khaled Hosseini

A Library Of Suffering

For refugees from countries riven by conflict the decision to exit, to flee, is hardly a choice - and the world is hardly an open book. The Kite Runner started as a novel by Afghani-born Khaled Hosseini whose family left everything to seek asylum in the United States after the Cold-War Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

The play is a clear if stolid rendition of a fictional modern refugee tale with almost biblical resonance. Amir and Hassan are constant childhood companions in 1970s' Kabul, an invincible team when it comes to the kite flying battles on the streets of Kabul. But their closeness is complex - not solely a friendship of choice but a master-servant relationship controlled by Amir's father, part of a caste system, and eventually wrenched apart by a rape and a wretched lie.

An intimate family story of betrayal and redemption stretching across the globe set against epic, seismic world shifts, it caught readers' imagination and become a best-selling novel. It's now a stage adaptation which feels as if it knows what it wants to do in theory but in the end is far too constrained by its origins on the page to make for a visceral theatrical experience.

What aims to be an intertwining of messy human experience with an exploration of storytelling and lying turns out to be a clunky framework. Novelist Amir (played as child and adult by Ben Turner) narrates the story, obviously from his point of view, until other voices are allowed their say. Yet the fact that his wronged friend and servant Sohrab (a touching Andrei Costin) never has control of the narrative is drowned out in the linear rush of events.

Still, it's efficiently directed by Giles Croft and has an intriguing design by Barney George which hints at what could have been.

Two kites open and close like the leafs of an illuminated Afghan manuscripts. Spindly brown uneven planks transform from the compound fences of Afghanistan and the notched credit-recording Afghani tally sticks to American skyscrapers. Yet at all times they could be fragile book spines.

This is probably a version which would work much better on a smaller stage in the round rather than an unforgiving proscenium arch stage. While Matthew Spangler's adaptation gestures towards the literary craft, it's never developed enough. The oasis of exhilaration and comradeship of the kite flying alongside the violence and treachery are never the tender mysteries in the midst of suffering and thwarted lives they could have been.

The strengths, and maybe the flaws, of the source material push through the peaks and troughs of this big, baggy play. Many will come out knowing a great deal more about Afghanistan and the refugee experience in West Coast America.

And while some of the problems are specific to their situation, others are more universal with just as much a feel of "There but for the grace of God ..." It's an amber light for a play which, while it remains stubbornly earth-bound, does at least aim to fly high.

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