Having missed the opportunity to watch The Kite Runner back in 2014 (courtesy of my AS English teacher) and hearing how amazing the production was from my friends, I knew I had to see it this time round. Having intensively studied Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner for two years and having watched the film adaptation, I was intrigued to see how Matthew Spangler adapted the novel, especially key storylines and sensitive scenes, for the theatre.
The Kite Runner navigates through religious tension, racism, deformities, war, and terrorism to tell the “haunting tale of friendship” and family. The story follows Amir who grew up in Kabul with his best friend and servant Hassan before becoming a refugee in the Unites States. Pivotal in the narrative are the themes of guilt and redemption which have drastic consequences in shaping the lives of each character as that “frigid overcast day… changed everything. And made me what I am today”.
Before attending the play, I didn’t research the adaption because I wanted to see for myself how Spangler’s realisation of the novel would be visually adapted for this setting. I came in expecting two actors to be cast as Amir- a young child to play Amir as a boy in Kabul and an older actor to play the present Amir. However, Spangler’s decision to have just the grown-up Amir narrating his story and weaving in between past and present, alongside Raj Ghatak’s ability to immerse himself in childlike sensibilities before returning to his adult self, beautifully demonstrated visually how integral the winter of 1975 was in defining him and how it continues to haunt him.
Although Ghatak played the protagonist, stealing the show was Jo Ben Ayed. Playing the ever-loyal Hassan, his characterisation, making particular use of mannerisms, heavily contributed to the emotion rife amongst the audience. Ayed’s face was lit with genuine childlike wonder as he grasped after each word uttered by Amir which when paired with intricacies such as the way he squinted, hunched his shoulders, and spoke, bought to life Hassan’s submission to Amir.
The complexities and layers of Afghan and American culture were always going to be difficult to transcribe into a theatre setting so director Giles Croft’s minimalist set design, consisting primarily of two large canvas kites, was used brilliantly for scene transitions by projecting media onto them. By crafting the stage in this way, Croft was also able to utilise the kites to serve as a constant visual reminder of Amir’s betrayal and the link between Amir, Hassan, kites, and family by using the canvas kites to shield the audience from the rape scene. Evoking unease and nausea, Croft returns to the kites behind which Hassan was raped to project the murders of Hassan and his wife which beautifully reinforce the themes of betrayal, redemption, and family as the audience too are haunted by the same things as Amir.
Music was paramount in creating the atmosphere of the play given the simplistic set design. Before the play began, authentic Afghan music welcomed us into the theatre as we were greeted by Hanif Khan playing the tabla. Transporting us to Kabul, this perfectly set the scene given the simple set. The tabla alongside Tibetan singing bowls and schwirrbogen were used by Khan and the cast to evoke emotion and create the atmosphere during critical moments for Amir. Large wooden rattles were also used to create the sound of the wind blowing and the kites soaring. By using rattles of different sizes, spinning at different speeds, and using canon, Croft skilfully built the momentum and tension during critical moments during the play as the wind became more urgent, louder, and wild.
What I found surprising was the depiction of the antagonist Assef. Although Soroosh Lavasani expressed Assef’s psychotic persona, in the novel, Assef is half-German, half-Afghani with blond hair and blue eyes. He is also an avid fan of Adolf Hitler and gave Amir a biography of Hitler as a birthday present whereas in the play there was no mention of his bloodline or Hitler; a football was the present given to Amir. I am aware that Spangler consulted with Hosseini regarding his adaptation and perhaps this was discussed, but I do find this omission disappointing. With the rise of the Alt-right, these themes are significant today and by choosing not to include far right extremism but still mentioning Communist USSR and Islamic Terrorism, this does seem akin to the failure of the Western world to align such ideologies as being on par with Russian and Islamic terrorists.
I really loved this adaption, but it has left me torn. As soon as I heard Ghatak speak the words I had committed to memory: “I became what I am today at the age of twelve…”: I knew that the script had been lifted straight from the book. When films are not made exactly as the book is written, some audiences can find it frustrating. But this time I was slightly frustrated that the play was word-for-word the majority of the book. Although, Spangler’s adaption is true to Hosseini’s tale, by using the book as the script, the play has omitted some key aspects. Of course, he couldn’t have included certain details such as Hassan’s cleft lip, but I do feel that there were certain things he should not have omitted but had to because by sticking to the wording in the novel, he could not condense scenes to include others. For example, in the book, there is an embedded storyline where Amir stays at Farid’s house after returning to Kabul in search of Sohrab. Amir thinks that Farid’s children are staring at his wrist because they want his watch, so he gives it to them. What they were actually staring at was the food in his hands because there was no food for them. After realising this, Amir plants money under a bed just like he had done twenty-six years ago in an attempt to oust Hassan from his life. With “a way to be good again” central to this story, the failure in incorporating this circularity means that Amir’s redemption is not fully realised in this theatrical adaptation.