Entertainment Theatre & Arts

Monday 16 July 2018

Flying a kite for this most spectacular production

Khaled Hosseini's bestseller 'The Kite Runner' soars in this production of Matthew Spangler's stage adaptation, writes Anne Marie Scanlon

Jo Ben Ayed and Raj Ghatak in ‘The Kite Runner’ at the Gaiety
Jo Ben Ayed and Raj Ghatak in ‘The Kite Runner’ at the Gaiety

Where to begin with The Kite Runner? The play was adapted from the bestselling book of the same name by Khaled Hosseini in 2007, before the film version came out.

Ostensibly the story is about two childhood friends, Amir and Hassan, but their complicated relationship also gives rise to many other issues which are confronted by the drama.

The Kite Runner deals with male friendship, toxic masculinity, the father/son dynamic, as well as that of master and servant, and betrayal and guilt. Tribalism and religious and cultural sensibilities also feature. Then there's the story of Afghanistan itself, and how it went from a relaxed, peaceful haven to a place governed by dictatorial Taliban, many of whom used the cover of religion to exercise their own hatreds and vices.

Yes, that's a lot to pack in to just over two hours, and I haven't even mentioned the immigrant experience in the United States. Given the sheer volume of themes, Matthew Spangler, who adapted the novel, has done a stellar job. However, The Kite Runner is by no means a perfect play - the script could be tighter at times.

Having said that, this production is so spectacular in terms of acting, sound and lighting that the imperfect script is overwhelmed by the sheer energy and emotion of the cast.

The play kicks off in the early 1970s and concerns two young boys, Amir (Raj Ghatak) and Hassan (Jo Ben Ayed), who are best friends. Amir is the more dominant, being older by a year, a Sunni Muslim and the son of a rich man. Hassan, a Shia Muslim, is the son of Amir's father's servant.

Both boys have lost their mothers, Amir's in childbirth while Hassan's ran off with a theatre group.

Raj Ghatak, who plays Amir, is a veteran of stage, television and films having appeared in EastEnders, Dead Set (the precursor to Charlie Brooker's much acclaimed Black Mirror series) and in Mrs Brown's Boys D'Movie. Jo Ben Ayed, by contrast, has just left drama school and this is his first big role (apart from playing the Easter Bunny in a chocolate commercial).

Both exude energy and absolutely own the stage. Their boyish games and kite-flying is highly synchronised and put me in mind of the two Gars, in Brian Friel's Philadelphia, Here I Come! Movement director Kitty Winter has done a wonderful job in synchronising the movements while keeping them natural.

While both Ghatak and Ayed give powerful, funny and emotionally wrenching performances, I'd question director Giles Croft's choice for Hassan's voice. Yes, he's meant to be a young boy and the sing-song high pitch may be how some tweenage boys speak, but with prolonged exposure it becomes irritating, which undermines what is a fantastic performance by Ayed.

Praise is also due to Gary Pillai who plays Amir's father Baba, a man who goes from great riches to being smuggled out of his home country, to menial labour in America just to get by. Pillai is a very subtle actor and, as such, his work could be easily overlooked.

Less subtle, but that's the part as it is written, is Soroosh Lavasani who is terrifying as Assef, the villain of the piece, who starts out as a childhood bully and goes on to make brutalising and terrorising people his life's work. I shrank back in my seat every time he appeared on stage.

Assef is responsible for the horrific act that changes the lives of the two fathers and sons at the heart of the story. I don't want to give away spoilers, but I wasn't the only one with my hands on my face, utterly aghast at the end of the first act.

Apart from the stellar performances of all the main cast members, lighting and sound are an integral part of the production. Charles Balfour's lighting design is capable of changing mood, atmosphere, scene or country. Composer and musical director Jonathan Girling has done an absolutely outstanding job. The live music, including having tabla player Hanif Khan on stage throughout, while enhancing the story and making the play much more of an 'experience', is so good it would easily stand alone.

At the end of the play, many of the audience were in tears. In the bathroom afterwards, one young woman was sobbing and being consoled by another girl. While the play is emotionally draining and shocking at times, there are lighter moments (but you'd best bring plenty of tissues anyway). As Amir says at the start, you can bury the past but "the past claws it's way out." While terrible things afflict the characters and indeed the country of Afghanistan, you take away from this superb production hope for the future.

The Kite Runner is at the Gaiety Theatre, Dublin, from June 4 to 9. Tickets from €21 at ticketmaster.ie

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