Writer: Ursula Rani Sarma from the book by Khaled Hosseini
Director: Roxana Silbert
Reviewer: James Garrington
For the many fans of Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns, there is a lot here that will be familiar, but there’s also a lot that’s been changed, and not always for the better. Of course, adapting a big novel for the stage will inevitably bring many challenges and decisions that have to be made – so what we have is a play that captures the essence of Hosseini’s original story, and the main characters, but which misses out a lot of detail, in particular from the first half of the book.
So here we start in 1992. Afghanistan is in the midst of civil war as rival factions fight for control of the country, and 15-year-old Laila finds herself orphaned by the fighting. Injured she is taken in by Rasheed, an older neighbour, to the profound dismay of his wife Mariam. Resentment grows when Rasheed decides to take Laila as a second wife, but when the Taliban take over the country, and life becomes even more difficult, the two women find themselves becoming allies and even friends in their struggle to survive.
Although the writing may feel slightly flawed, the same cannot be said about the performances or the production. The play is staged on a very effective single set (designed by Ana Ines Jabares-Pita) which is used to depict many different locations, both inside and out, and which combines beautifully with Simon Bond’s gloriously atmospheric lighting to give a real feel of the time and setting of the story.
Sujaya Dasgupta plays Laila, a rôle that means she is seldom off stage, and her journey is remarkable as she transforms beautifully from happy young woman at the beginning to hardened and cynical woman as the story progresses, while still showing love for her children with a wonderful vulnerability hiding under the surface. Her enemy-turned-friend Mariam is played by Amina Zia – another good portrayal as the put-upon and unloved first wife, resentful of the young, beautiful girl who has been brought into the household but with a deepening respect becoming friendship as the women realise that they have to look after each other.
Pal Aron gives a well-judged performance as their husband Rasheed, sometimes with an air of apparent caring, other times showing a vindictive and vengeful turn of violence as he treats the women – as he has been brought up – as little more than property. Among the rest of the cast there are notable performances too from Naveed Khan (Babi), Waleed Akhtar (Tariq) and Shala Nyx as both the young Mariam and, in a remarkable portrayal, Laila’s daughter Aziza.
Although there is a plot, as we follow Laila’s life and experiences, at times it feels more like a series of scenes rather than a coherent story – and with the feel of each scene very firmly on the pain and hardships of the women involved. The key phrase that echoes through the piece is “women endure” and that is the element of the story where writer Ursula Rani Sarma has focussed her attention, creating a single-issue piece that misses some of the diversity, richness and detailed background of the book. Couple that with an ending that seems rushed and which doesn’t quite match the tone of what has gone before, and you get a play that – despite many beautiful, engrossing and painful episodes on the way – leaves you feeling slightly dissatisfied, which is a shame when the original story is so powerful, and the production and performances so good.
Runs Until 18 May 2019 and on tour | Image: Pamela Raith