AN AFGHAN EPIC TO REMEMBER
Khaled Hosseini’s novel is an intimate epic: a flawed, damaged, remorseful man’s journey through thirty years of turbulent history. Amir is the privileged Pashtun son of a peaceful Afghanistan before its wars, USSR and US invasions, and the vicious Taleban years . The story, familiar now, traces his awkward growing-up into exile, immigrant struggles and college in California; from a cowardly childhood moment with a terrible consequence it culminates in his redemptive return thirty years later,. When, tellingly, he is roughly told by a guide (as many of the world’s upper-middles might well be) ‘You always were a tourist here ”.
It became a successful film, but Matthew Spangler’s play – far more arresting and vivid – was written before that.. This version under Giles Croft (jointly for Nottingham Playhouse and Liverpool Everyman) was honed to perfection by a substantial tour, and deserves all the attentive pin-drop silences , sighs and applause it meets in the West End. Atmosphere and honest emotion radiate outwards: there is a kind of urgency about it, a spur to meditations about class, tribalism, migration, fatherhood, and not least the spectrum of glories and horrors within Islam itself. The melodramatic almost fairytale elements of the story are grounded by an earthy credibility, moments of frightening brutality, and the fantastical but factual elements of modern global migration: Afghan flea-markets and ceremonial marriage-services flourishing in San Francisco in the age of MTV.
Spangler, of necessity with a vast rambling story, uses the adult Amir to narrate much of the story, dropping back into childhood or adolescent scenes. I was uneasy at first: plays-of-novels can be ruined this way, losing the show-don’t-tell energy of theatre. The treatment did Faulks’ Birdsong no favours. But Spangler uses it more carefully, and Ben Turner as Amir does both with skilful ease, becoming in turn the shy, bookish, culpably timid child self, the modernized US teenager , the young husband at last admitting his guilt, and the fully adult narrator remembering it all. It is a tough job, for Amir is often frankly despicable in his behaviour, right up to a wonderfully self-pitying outburst in the presence of the dignified, dying old Rahim. He holds on to sympathy though, rather thrillingly by his fingernails at times.
The first act is all set in the early 70’s childhood, and the friendship Amir betrays with the servant-boy Hassan: in which role the young Romanian West-End debutant Andrei Costin is quite superb. His is an even more tricky part because “goodness writes white”: the devotion and hurt forgiving sweetness of the servant boy must be made credible. In Costin, it is: every gesture both loving and subservient, channelling a forgotten and deeply un-modern kind of retainer’s loyalty. But all the supporting cast are strong: notably Nicholas Karimi who genuinely terrifies in both halves as the bully Assef , Emilio Doorgasingh bluff, macho, harsh and in one remarkable scene heroic as the father Baba; and Ezra Faroque Khan striking in an old-Afghanistan dignity as the servant Ali and later, the guide Farid.
Barney George’s set design – with William Simpson’s projection – is elegantly simple, trees and rocks and skyscrapers craggily suggested , great fans descending for middle-eastern interiors and the dove-like white innocent kites of childhood a curiously moving sight in themselves. If I could raise one quibble as it comes into London , it is that the lesser slope of Wyndham’s stall seats makes it frustrating when – naturalistic though it is – the director stages some important conversations with both characters seated on the floor. One tall fidgety head in front and you lose them. But story, strength, performance and sincerity deserve all honour.
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