Friday, 14 June 2013

The Kite Runner – Liverpool Playhouse – 13/06/2013

We are welcomed to the auditorium by Hanif Khan, sitting downstage left playing tabla. Behind him lies a stark, curved space slightly resembling a skate-park. However, when the house lights dim and the performance proper begins, Barney George’s set comes vividly to life, with the help of Charles Balfour’s lighting and William Simpson’s lavish and complex sequence of video projections, which transform the magic carpet of the stage floor and the backdrop of elegant screens that fall and rise like sails, bird’s wings or maybe even kites.

It is against this background of ever-changing visuals and Jonathan Girling’s atmospheric score, accompanied by live tabla, singing bowls and other tuned percussion, that Giles Croft directs his large cast in this adaptation of Khaled Hosseini’s bestselling novel. It was first brought to the stage in Matthew Spangler’s adaptation in San Jose, but is seeing European stages for the first time in this current co-production between Nottingham Playhouse and Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse.

The story follows the mixed fortunes of Amir and Hassan, as their lives take them from Afghanistan to America and back via a series of events, some happy, some tragic, and into the next generation of their families. As we take the journey with them, we learn of the unbreakable ties that bind their lives together despite terrible acts of cruelty and abandonment.

The book is densely written and not always an engaging read, and stage adaptation was bound to be a tricky business. It has been remarked elsewhere that a good deal of the storytelling in this version is delivered to the audience directly by Amir in the first person, acting as narrator. But short of adding another good hour to the running time, I fail to see how the whole of the saga could have been related without cutting out too much back story and meaning, and I for one was happy with the use of the technique as a way of getting swiftly to the point.

It is the dramaturgy that really animates the piece, and the use of “virtual” settings enables the pace to be maintained between scenes so that we really don’t notice the passage of time in the theatre.

The Kite Flying scenes accompanied by wind wands are moments of magic which, along with the evocative score, transport the audience to other times and other places. Initially this magic is what carries us to the Kabul of Amir and Hassan’s happy and innocent childhood – an innocence soon to be shattered.

Ben Turner’s Amir is a big ask with a lot of words, onstage almost constantly for the play’s 140 plus minutes, and he negotiates the repeated segues from child to adult with style. His despair is palpable as his someway cowardly attempts to rescue situations lead to ever increasingly tragic consequences.

Farshid Rokey is heartbreaking as both the lifelong loyal Hassan and, later, as his own mute son Sohrab. The remaining cast members are a great ensemble but special note goes to Emilio Doorgasingh’s Baba, Amir’s father, whose torn loyalties lead to much of the tragedy, and to Nicholas Karimi as the brutal sociopath Aseef, the sort of person, we are told, for whom there is no word in Farsi. His appearance on stage swiftly becomes something that chills the blood.

Adaptation from a novel to the stage will always divide opinion, especially among those who have come to love the original first, but Spangler’s adaptation steers a careful and pretty successful course between retaining the key elements of the story while making it work in physical form – never an easy task when so much depends on invoking the imagination of the reader or spectator. You could argue that more of the spoken narrative might have been played out dramatically, but I think this may have made the piece too lengthy to sustain itself on stage.

The Kite Runner, which takes a very individual view of the human cost of events in Afghanistan under the Taliban, comes to the stage in Croft’s production with sincerity, colour and style. It opened in April at Nottingham Playhouse and spent a brief period in Brighton before transferring to the Liverpool Playhouse this week, where it runs until 6th July. Tickets priced from £12 to £23 are selling fast.
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