A kite doesn’t come alive until it’s licked by the wind. Only then does it make a dash for freedom, bursting towards the sky with an energy that seems to come from within.
But there are kites…and there are kites. In the former category you can place the ones that catch the breeze over the Mersey; take a walk to Otterspool, out beyond central Liverpool on the way to Garston docks, and you see them whenever the wind whips off the river – and when doesn’t it? Against a parochial English sky, their race for the clouds seems inhibited, just for show. They may lift the heart a little, but you can never forget they’re just plastic or wood.
Watch The Kite Runner at Liverpool Playhouse, however, and you get the chance to witness the other kind of kite – ones that arc and swoop majestically, demanding respect as a metaphor for inner struggle and release. In this case they are the bamboo and tissue-paper warriors that execute their war dance above Kabul; so symbolic are they of free-spirited abandon, they were forbidden by the Taliban in 1996. Muscular and combative, they lie at the heart of Khaled Hosseini’s best-selling novel, and their imagined presence brings an elemental power to this stage version too.
Adapted by Matthew Spangler, this co-production between the Playhouses of Nottingham and Liverpool first soared above our heads last summer. Such was its success that it’s now unspooling again, here for just a week as part of a ten-venue national tour. It may only be a year since we saw it last but it’s no surprise that it has returned. This is both a faithful adaptation of a much-loved source and a gripping stage drama in its own right. Lovers of the book are unlikely to be disappointed, while those who come to it fresh will find their souls lifted skyward by a parable of betrayal and atonement.
Pulling the strings of this tale is Amir, our first-person narrator – an epic performance by Ben Turner – who speaks to us directly, forcing us to bear witness to a confession and to the catharsis that follows. Giles Croft’s production keeps Turner on stage for the duration, with the ensemble bobbing and weaving around him, just like those kites, deftly keeping the drama aloft.
Growing up in the Afghanistan of the 60s and 70s, bursting through a crack between his father’s defiant secularism and the nation’s Islamic milieu, Amir’s constant companion is Hassan. They climb trees and cause mischief, but this is no Just William idyll. Because Amir’s people are Pashtun while Hassan is Hazara: beneath the comradeship, they are master and servant. As Amir says, “I never thought of Hassan and me as friends.”
Amir finds Hassan’s devotion easy to abuse – in the most subtle and calculating of ways. And it’s this disparity in power around which the play turns, a twist of loyalty and moral weakness that confirms Hassan’s role as resilient stoic, and fully reveals Amir to be unworthy of those years of deep-rooted fidelity.
If the first half’s buffeting momentum seems to dip and fade sporadically after the interval, the faltering in the plot’s flow can be traced back to Hosseini’s novel. While the story is rooted in real experience, he has combined his own memories of an Afghanistan now gone – and flight from intolerance and invasion – with myth and imagination; there is a series of hurried coincidences and pat explanations that might anchor a 10th century Persian epic, but which sit a little uncomfortably in a tale that sometimes approaches a 21st century thriller.
But it’s a minor weakness for a production that packs a hefty emotional punch. By the time we return to a ravaged Afghanistan, post-Soviet invasion and in the Taliban’s grip, we already feel pangs of regret for the delicately scented Afghan life we witnessed before the coming of the gun. That we saw it through the eyes of a privileged youth – the son of a wealthy secular businessman who sips scotch and throws extravagant parties – is made clear as Amir returns from America on a redemptive mission back home. His driver sneers at his ex-pat glow: “You’ve always been a tourist here. You just didn’t know it.”
With only a few exceptions this is the same cast who created this show last summer, and the performances are strong. Amir is a storyteller with his troupe of players, whipping up snowstorms, weddings, a vivid Kabul and America’s land of plenty. If Amir is his own worst enemy, Nicholas Karimi’s chilling Assef comes close to stealing that crown. Emilio Doorgasingh is the father who twists Amir’s emotions as he throws lavish entertainments while seeming to despair of his bookish son, and Lisa Zahra impresses in a variety of roles, not least the wife who helps Amir come to terms with himself.
Mention must be made too of Hanif Khan, the musician who shares Ben Turner’s burden of appearing on stage all night. His hypnotic tabla rhythms and other percussive interventions help to spice the production with the taste of danger, of free-flying release, of tainted personal revelation.
But it’s the image of Amir that lives on at curtain down: taut and coiled, his eyes on the sky, he feels his kite tug for freedom once more. And now I’m determined that next time I’m walking out at Otterspool and see a Poundland kite reaching half-heartedly for the heavens, I’ll scrunch up my eyes and think myself back to this story; and in the dying Mersey light, the distant pinnacles of Stanlow oil refinery might become a city of gleaming minarets.
What: The Kite Runner
Where: Liverpool Playhouse
Until: September 13, 2014 and then on tour