It was Alexander The Great who first observed the importance of Afghanistan as a link between East and West. Ever since, the country has seen political and religious turmoil, strife and war, not least between the varying indigenous ethnicities of the Pashtun, Tajiks and Hazaras.
That's not to say there haven't been times of truce. In 1919 the British and Indian empires recognised the country's independence and in the year's following under the rule of Zahir Shah there was relative peace. It's in the early 1970s that the plot of The Kite Runner begins, just as unrest stirred up once again.
Based on Khaled Hosseini's novel of the same name, this theatrical adaptation from Matthew Spangler shows the beautiful good, the horrifying bad and the strikingly ugly sides of Afghan culture. Its focus is the life of Amir (Ben Turner), a boy from a well-off family who fails to live up to the expectations of his father Baba (Emilio Doorgasingh), but finds friendship in his Hazara servant Hassan (Andrei Costin). As a multi-million selling book, the plot will be familiar to many. It's as powerful, touching and poignant here, delivering an extraordinary tale of friendship, fatherhood, cultural divides and guilt.
The success of the play falls on the shoulders of Turner's Amir, who impressively remains on-stage at all times as narrator. It's an exceptional, captivating performance, drawing us into the story with the mannerisms of a child and slowly morphing into an adult wracked with shame from the traumatic events he witnesses as a boy. He's supported by Costin's Hassan: innocent, endearing and tragically loyal.
As an adaptation, however, this production feels lacklustre. As Turner narrates, the story unfolds literally as a series of chronological events. There's real depth in the plot and potential for rich theatricality, but Spangler remains stoically tied to the novel's first person narrative and adds little beyond an audiobook delivery. Narration - scene - narration - scene: it's a pedestrian structure that never quite manages to bring the book alive off the page.
Further, it bears the hallmarks of a touring production: the set is simple and subtle, lighting is minimal, and the small cast awkwardly double up on roles (with one questionable depiction of a Vietnamese woman standing out in an otherwise BAME cast). It all serves the story efficiently, but lacks the magic theatre can provide.
Yet with such a heartfelt and emotive story at the core of this production, it's impossible to dislike. And with its message that humanity knows no boundaries of country, religion or culture, it couldn't have come at a better time. It may not prove the power of theatre, but its story remains deeply moving.
Watch: The Kite Runner runs at the Wyndham's Theatre until March 11th.
Photos: Robert Workman