Based on Khaled Hosseini’s best-selling novel and adapted for the stage by Matthew Spangler, The Kite Runner tells a story: or perhaps, the more apt phrase would be ‘tells stories’ – the plot follows the friendship of Amir (Raj Ghatak), and Hassan (Jo Ben Ayed), two Afghan boys, a well-off Pashtun and a Hazara servant respectively. This friendship serves as a conduit through which we see the binaries of loyalty and betrayal, courage and cowardice, love and hate. All stories, individual, and potent in their own right.
We join our protagonists in early 1970s Afghanistan enjoying the dying embers of the relative peace their country had enjoyed since 1919; the two play out this idyll imitating their favourite westerns, reading the tenth-century epic, the Shahnamah, and, of course, preparing for the kite flying/fighting tournament.
One of the major triumphs in the first act has to be how this peace is made to feel increasingly brittle as Amir and Hassan’s jaunts are punctuated by the increasingly threatening presence of Assef (Soroosh Lavasini), narrowly avoiding conflict until the malice of their “sociopath” nemesis can no longer be contained.
Interestingly, in Amir’s narration he mentions that the word sociopath “has no Farsi equivalent” – it is not until later in his life (after immigrating to San Francisco) that he is supplied with a word to ascribe to this experience, demonstrative of how alien, how incomprehensible, Assef’s reckless hate appeared to the Farsi speaking boys.
Lavasini’s vivid villain (portrayed with a seething intensity through his unnervingly concentrated facial expressions) provides the perfect point of comparison and contrast for Amir and Hassan’s bond. Their close relationship is forged in spite of their Pashtun/Hazara differences, the very same difference Assef uses as kindling for his violence; in this sense, they exemplify an accepting freedom.
However, they (like their country’s time of peace) are not immune to corrupting influence, as Assef begins to dominate, their friendship becomes increasingly fractious, until it seemingly, eventually, breaks. In this regard, the two are a micro allegory for their macro-political context – war strikingly coincides with Amir’s betrayal of Hassan; indicative of the poignant warning and message at the core of this drama. Reminding us that when we turn from our friends and act ignorant to persecution, when we leave the brave few alone to suffer, we (as Amir’s father says about his son) grow into something “that can’t stand up to anyone”, and Assef wins.
The ensuing conflict and eventual invasion by Soviet troops cause Amir and his father (portrayed by Gary Pillai) to flee in the back of a fuel truck to Pakistan, and eventually the USA. When presenting this flight, director Giles Croft has his players huddle in two lines opposite each other, crouched and inclined towards each other, creating a form akin to an engine. This is just one of the many ways scenes are brought to life through inventive action amongst minimalist, yet tasteful props.
The ambiance of the drama is furthered by another key aspect – music. Sonically, The Kite Runner is alive with traditional Afghan and Indian songs, and Tibetan Singing Bowls which, composer and musical director Jonathan Girling notes in the program is to capture “the sound of rushing blood in your ears when you’re caught in a terrifying situation”. I can certainly attest to the success of this feature.
Hanif Khan deserves a special mention when considering the musical life of this play, his Tabla playing provided the rhythm which was set “to underscore many scenes… pausing for key phrases and moments.” (Girling)
Such a well-balanced, authentic score takes us from the theatre to Kabul, and follows Amir and Baba (Amir’s father) to the United States – a country which Amir describes as a “river roaring along, unmindful of the past.” Alongside the Fitzgeraldian tone of this phrase resides a key paradox, for, it is in this second act situated in San Francisco that Amir truly attempts to distance himself from guilt; he becomes unmindful of his own past, yet all the while his narration is integrated with Khan’s Tabla and punctuated by reluctant memories of his childhood friend, Hassan.
The past eventually becomes something which calls him back to his homeland, the second act is in constant conversation with the first, creating a nostalgia which quite literally results in a painful return home.
Throughout this review, Amir’s narration has been acknowledged and must now be commended. Raj Ghatak’s performance was intimate and sustained with a great amount of energy considering he remained on stage throughout the entirety of both acts.
The Kite Runner in performance resembles a spool of memories and confessions pouring out of our narrator: it was David Foster Wallace who said reading is essentially a communication between one human being and another – an assertion which rings true when considering the successes of The Kite Runner. For, this page to stage exercise in storytelling, is essentially a communication of love, nostalgia, and guilt, between Amir and the audience.