FringeReview UK 2017
Giles Croft again directs, with the same creatives: Barney George’s flexible design of roll-out carpets, jagged skyline backdrop of buildings that become ruins, and variously-blazoned curtains and reveals strikingly lit by Charles Balfour with William Simpson’s deft projections touching in where necessary. The acclaimed musician Hanif Khan is again foregrounded and plays downstage left and then right at key points.
It’s wonderful to see this production again. Matthew Spangler’s adaptation of Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner returns to Theatre Royal Brighton after its sell-out previous production at 2013’s Brighton Festival. That was also from Nottingham Playhouse and Liverpool Everyman and a host of backers.
The Kite Runner’s message of loyalty, guilt, redemption and kite flying exhales a lost Afghanistan, a window on a world snatched away as a kite with its string deliberately cut like the competitions that leave just one of a hundred bamboo and tissue constructions flying. It’s an uneasy childhood metaphor, and it’s no surprise this thrilling spectacle engages men into middle age.
But here it’s a story of betrayed friendship, secrets and fatherhood wrought against the lurch of history as foreigners destabilise Afghanistan and violent opportunists within make their gambit under the guise of religion.
It’s not a production that needs tinkering with but there’s a new freshness: continuity and an ensemble expanded by two. Giles Croft again directs, with the same creatives: Barney George’s flexible design of roll-out carpets, jagged skyline backdrop of buildings that become ruins, and variously-blazoned curtains and reveals strikingly lit by Charles Balfour with William Simpson’s deft projections touching in where necessary. The acclaimed musician Hanif Khan is again foregrounded and plays downstage left and then right at key points. Emilio Doorgasingh returns as Baba (the hero Amir’s father) and Ezra Faroque Khan as Ali and Farid, with David Ahmad previously in a supporting role now taking the lead as Amir. The cast’s otherwise new, and swelled by two.
We start around 1973, when the old king’s deposed after forty years, the length of time Ali and his son Hassan have been in the service of the widower Baba, a Pashtun upper class businessman who treats them almost as family. They’re from the Hazara 10% Shia underclass, treated in Afghanistan almost as badly as the Rohingyas are today in Myomar. Hassan’s a superb kite runner, someone who knows here other kites will come in to attack his friend and almost master’s kite: Amir relies on him for this and to retrieve kites they’ve cut and crashed, like conker trophies.
In a role where he slips from constant narrator to flawed hero, Ahmad’s performance is a tour de force of compressed epic telling and the stuttering growth from timid boy to timid man, with bursts of courage that quicken towards the end. Yet Ahmad never lets us forget the introverted boy Amir’s grown from, however street-savvy he might seem in San Francisco, or worldly returning to a place that’s essentially worldless. Every flinch makes us cringe but feel for Ahmad’s richly flawless conception of a flawed, indeed riven protagonist.
Amir wants to write. His disapproving father treats his only child with disdain: only fellow businessman Farid (Ezra Faroque Khan’s other role) understands Amir, and will play a crucial role.
There’s a canker: Bhavin Bhatt’s hyena-laughing sociopath bully Assef. Taunting Hassan as a ‘flatnose’ Hazara he even cajoles the timid bookish Amir into denying he’s a friend, merely a servant. Hassan’s not even dented by this, but in Jo Ben Ayed’s hunched and excruciatingly moving servility a kind of resilience and courage shines out. At a crucial juncture he rescues Amir with a threat from his sling shot, but it won’t end there.
Baba who once won his own tournament but disapproves of Amir almost as much as he exalts Hassan (never forgetting his birthday) is briefly buoyed by thrilling events. Beautifully mimed with kites, it’s when Amir with Hassan’s help wins the tournament in the winter of 1975. But retribution swiftly follows. Amir finds Hassan captured by Assef, and secretly watches as an appalling revenge is taken. Unable to bear his own cowardice he projects his guilt onto Hassan with devastating results.
Soon events force the once-rich Baba and his only child to flee in the tank of a truck, and make a new life in San Francisco, with comic and melancholy results. Amir’s in his element, becomes a university-trained novelist, meets and wins Afghan general’s daughter Soraya (Amiera Darwish). This isn’t easy: the chilling general Ravi Aujla’s Taheri tears up a story Amir tries to give to his eager girlfriend. Help comes from an unexpected quarter, but Baba’s fallen ill.
Farid calls Amir. ‘It’s time to be good again’ he announces, also ill, and Amir’s trek back to the past now riven with conflict and danger is the extraordinary redemptive second part of this play. And courage must be faced on both sides of the world. Many will know the story. But it must be seen. Adaptor Matthew Spangler who worked closely with the author felt rightly this cried out for theatrical treatment, and it works better on stage for many, than on film.
Apart from Ahmad’s authoritative performance, Doorgasingh’s rich baritonal delivery as Baba, distant, disdainful, jocular aristocratic but vulnerable to tears behind the lofty façade, is as definitive as it gets. His presence commands, his courage thrills, his illness is borne with terrible dignity. There’s dignity too in Faroque Khan’s revisiting both the nobly forbearing servant Ali and friend Farid, giving wise counsel to father and son. Aujla’s chiselled performances as the General and consular official Andrews cut like hard law. Bhatt’s Assef manages a quicksilver viciousness between fawning on Baba, turning on Amir and later, another incarnation altogether. Darwish too is good, particularly in relating her past. Jay Sajjid, Umar Pasha, Karl Seth in smaller roles, and Oliver Gyani and Danielel Woodnutt as ensemble players etch vignettes and blend back effortlessly, as well as fly kites. Beyond all this Hanif Khan plays his table with a kind of devastating serenity
Jo Ben Ayed’s physical performance though as Hassan and later Sohrab calls for special mention. He heightens Ahmad’s interactions, and these two are at their finest bouncing off each other’s terrible agencies: love, betrayal, guilt, it’s all curled in on itself like a broken kite. Theirs is a remarkable chemistry, radially informed by Doorgasingh and Faroque Khan’s reactions. It’s a potent, heartwarming and heartrending story, spellbindingly translated to the stage and here with more power even than before. Don’t miss it.