The Kite Runner – Richmond Theatre, London

Reviewer: Alex Jacob

Writer: Matthew Spangler

Director: Giles Croft

It would be praise of the highest order to state that an adaptation feels like a piece originally written for the theatre – and that’s exactly where The Kite Runner sits. Adaptation is, in many ways akin to translation: where translation seeks to render the text in a different language whilst preserving the soul and identity of the original, so adaptation aspires to a similar goal: faithful conversion between text and performance.

In short: making a book into a play is no easy feat. Prose is slippery and elusive: descriptive passages conveying identity or surroundings are not easily dramatized. Thoughts and feelings must be shown, rather than revealed. Movement and travel – so easily explained on the page – must instead be demonstrated within the limitations of the set.

This dark, fairy tale-esque play tells the story of a boy from Kabul: burdened by a heavy conscience for a sin committed in his youth and by the significant weight of his high-flying father’s expectations, he undergoes both a physical and metaphorical journey towards redemption. There’s clearly already a lot going on in this play – but thrown into this mix is the political turmoil of 1970s Afghanistan, and the emigration of refugees to Pakistan and the US, which plays out in the backdrop. Matthew Spangler’s rendition of these many events (both micro and macro) is seamless: an ambitious yet sensitive take on a multi-faceted and extremely complex plot. As he himself says: ‘there is just so much in it [the play]’ – and yet his piece is no less powerful for the amount of content it packs in.

He is assisted with this difficult endeavour by talented director Giles Croft and idealistic designer Barney George (plus designer team of Balfour and Simpson). Part of this play’s genius lies in its set: in the background, two giant kites rise and fall in sequence. Each kite is a projection board, onto which a collection of atmospheric patterns, backgrounds and images are overlaid.

In one particularly emotional moment, a story being told on-stage is dramatized through a dream-like sequence which is shown on the kites. It’s a simple concept, but one which allows this play to take its staging to the next level: the carefully designed projections (crafted by William Simpson), are evocative and ambient, allowing for quick yet subtle scene shifts. In the background, a series of irregular, oblong shapes are backlit by a warm yellow light or a cool blue light – night and day, effectively deployed to illuminate the on-stage events.

It’s an understated yet subtle set which allows for beautifully ambiguous scene setting, without detracting from the actors or the story itself. And whilst Spangler has done everything he can to enable the transition from page to stage, it’s down to his cast to make the story believable and palpable.

Amir (played by Stuart Vincent) predominantly shoulders this responsibility, alternatively stepping into the role of player and narrator. His is a diverse role, requiring him to re-enact the memories of his young self and older self, whilst also narrating events, soliloquising on his guilt and monologuing his thoughts. Through a breadth of accents, ages and affectations, Vincent brings this role to life, seamlessly transitioning between player and storyteller.

It is his narration which gives this play its fairy-tale feel, as it swells and crescendos to his words, and to his version of events. These moments of crescendo or mounting tension are given more import by the live, on-stage percussion: musical director Jonathan Girling introduces ‘singing bowls’ and ‘The Schwirrbogen’ (an instrument which sounds exactly like it is spelt) which can be deployed in the background without eclipsing the dialogue. Rushing wind and mounting apprehension are literalised through these instruments.

This piece is ultimately Amir’s story, but he is assisted in its re-telling by a deeply empathetic cast, whose portrayal of their respective characters is well-considered, sensitive and emotional. Despite being less three-dimensional than Amir (the audience are not privy to their thoughts or internal monologue as we are with Amir), it is their interactions with, and around Amir that take this from a ‘story’ to a piece of theatre.

Dean Rehman as Baba, whose performance as an authoritative, stern and stubborn father figure, leaves the audience with the same vicarious feelings of shame, hurt and frustration that he instils in his son. Likewise, Yazdan Qafouri plays Hassan with a sweet and beautiful innocence, and a palpable sense of kindness, whilst Bhavin Bhatt’s mocking tone as Assef is shockingly potent. There are no outliers in this performance – every actor knows their character, both as they were written and as they would like to portray him or her.

The Kite Runner is already well-known as a potent story of guilt and redemption. But put to the stage, it becomes something more, rather than something less. To the steady beat of Hanif Khan’s faithful tabla drumming, this performance preserves the soul of the original fable, whilst making the story its own. The stage becomes less of a limitation and more of an enabler; ultimately, we trade words and descriptions for enactments, live music and masterful storytelling.

Runs until 16 March 2024 and then tours

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The Reviews Hub - London

The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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