This adaptation of Khaled Hosseini’s best-seller was written back in 2006, a year before the filmic representation. Protagonist Amir narrates his life as if from the present day, taking him through his childhood in Kabul to his current existence in sunny San Francisco. The play is constructed through lead Ben Turner directly-addressing his audience as an American adult, while also habitually falling back into his own story, beginning as an Afghani-accented child playing with kites. It’s a tough test with near-constant stage time. Ever an aspiring storyteller, Amir attempts to redeem himself by confessing his guilty past and attempting to right those he has wronged.
Keeps all the plates spinning toward a winning result which is magically far greater than the sum of its parts.
In the act of telling Amir’s own little, relentlessly coincidental simple life story, Khaled Hosseini, through screenwriter Mathew Spangler and finally Ben Turner, of course a much larger drama unfolds. One human perspective draws all of the social and political history of Afghanistan since 1975 into Wyndam’s auditorium. The novel’s 372 pages are condensed into 140-minutes of performance with a 20-minute interval.
In short, it’s a long play, but one which is still congested. The scenes are cherry-picked as flashpoints of the longer story and from the opening section where Amir first plays with his servant Hassan to the final ones in California; it is fragmented in its strain to spool his whole life as one continual sequence. Each scene has to establish context anew, introducing new characters before dropping them as the years pass and the actors dizzyingly flit into different costumes. At one point, Nicholas Khan, who plays Rahim Khan, an uncle-like advocate of Amir’s literary exploits appears in a later scene as ‘Dr. Schneidner’. Amir’s father exclaims: “where are you from?” in a reference to family and bloodline, but it’s hard not to take it as a Brechtian nod, perhaps in part to mitigate the roulette of characters. Amir’s wife as the Vietnamese immigrant shop-owner stretches the powers of stereotyped accents and imagination to its limits.
In an emotionally and politically heavy first act these problems fade. However, a forced upbeat opening to act two which includes a hippy-happy ‘80s America’ musical interlude – colourful beach shorts and all, feels like it backs down again. In fact, much of the humour doesn’t feel natural and seems more to placate anyone suffering under the weight of the admittedly fundamental and resounding events. After this is digested, the cultural changes in America present new challenges and the ramp up to a fraught, stomach-churning last adventure back to the Middle East begins.
The kite runners are the poorer Afghan children who catch the downed kites during tournaments. To that end, Hassan, a perennially deferential ‘ethnically inferior’ servant to Amir has a strong, but subtle role. Andrei Costin is wonderful as the doggedly loyal, quasi-friend of Amir. When he doubles up as a second character, the result is a perfect advert for the technique.
Ben Turner turns in a necessarily dynamic, versatile performance as both character and narrator. He can be cliché but when juggling multiple accents, interactions with a lifetime of characters and cultures he keeps all the plates spinning toward a winning result which is magically far greater than the sum of its parts. He pulls together the individual sketches of one troubled existence into a thoroughly believable and touching homage to a timeless tale.