Guilt has enormous dramatic potential. It affects interactions, it enables subtext to disrupt text, it motivates and constrains. But when guilt is placed in an isolated, inactive context, it risks slipping into self-pity and a dramatically inert, if not stagnant, state. Giles Croft’s The Kite Runner – the second recent Nottingham Playhouse production to make a triumphant return from a West End run, following Robert Icke’s 1984 – invites us to share in a long wallow with a man so consumed by self-pity that he is barely able to function as a human being. I’m not sure how far this is intended, but it’s a bold choice to invite an audience to invest in as self-centred a protagonist as David Ahmad’s Amir.
Matthew Spanger’s adaptation of Khaled Hosseini’s novel captures the narrator’s traumatic childhood in Kabul entirely from Amir’s perspective. Ahmad – carrying the entire production in an extraordinarily demanding role – plays both the adult and the child Amir, close friends with his father’s servant’s son, Hassan. When Hassan is beaten and raped by bullies while attempting to locate a kite for his friend-cum-master, Amir refuses to intervene, distances himself from the boy to the point of framing him as a thief, and then flees with his father to the USA. To the production’s credit, the potentially cringe worthy adults-playing-children of the first half is carried by a game cast, most successfully in the genuinely threatening bullying scenes; and Jo Ben Ayed is wonderfully vulnerable as the wide-eyed, obedient but increasingly sidelined Hassan.
The difficulty is that everything is framed through the adult Amir’s narration, as he steps in and out of the action, both participating in and commenting on events without fully settling into either role. The narration is so relentlessly absorbed by how Amir feels about his actions that no other character is able to even begin to develop. A technique that can work beautifully in a novel here deprives the scenes of life, with even scenes of play refracted through the constantly downbeat mood.
Act 2 shits to San Francisco and Amir’s adulthood, where he becomes increasingly irredeemable without the excuse of childhood naivety. There is a brief respite from his self-absorption as he meets his future wife (Amiera Darwish, in the only named female role), but she is barely allowed to speak, and instead becomes defined by (a) the caring role she immediately assumes for his dying father and (b) her ‘unexplained infertility’ which leads both Amir and the script to identify her with the ‘empty womb’ lying on the other side of the bed. This is the heart of this adaptation’s problem: the emptiness of every other character through the eyes of a protagonist who is devoid of empathy.
Amir disappears from his wife to visit a family friend in Pakistan, who tells him of Hassan’s execution (depicted beautifully and traumatically in silhouette); within seconds, Amir is focusing entirely on how this makes him feel. The revelation that Hassan was in fact Amir’s half-brother is a betrayal of Amir by his father. The survival of Hassan’s orphaned son is a problem for Amir, who feels forced to travel to Afghanistan to take the boy away. When he gets the boy back to Pakistan only to find that the family friend has disappeared, it is the unfairness to Amir that the play discusses. And when he betrays the sensitive Sohrab’s trust (played again by Ayed) by mishandling the news that Sohrab will temporarily have to stay in an orphanage, resulting in Sohrab attempting suicide while Amir sleeps, the focus is yet again on how difficult this is for Amir.
Early in the play, Amir turns to the audience and remarks on how the West has a word to diagnose the bully Assef – ‘a sociopath’. But Amir’s own self-pity also prevents him from empathising with anyone, seeing others only as obstacles to his own happiness. He is a character who experiences traumas overwhelmingly of his own making, and the production holds him to account for this, but neither he nor the production make any space for those who suffer the lasting effects. Even when he finally stands up to his father-in-law to declare his relationship to Sohrab, he cuts off his wife twice in order to do so. In a final, apparently unintentional irony, the play concludes with Sohrab showing the hint of a healing smile as they fly kites together, but Amir’s celebration involves him standing directly between Sohrab and the audience, turning his back on and cutting off the audience’s view of the traumatised boy at the play’s heart.
Ahmad does his best with the material, and an excellent supporting cast repeatedly shine (especially Emilio Doorgasingh as the repressed, formal and latterly vulnerable father, who also gets the play’s very few laughs as he attempts to integrate in San Francisco). The live music by Hanif Khan is mesmerising, and Barney George’s design moves fluidly between Kabal and San Francisco, the backdrops capturing the twinned skylines of the cities over which the play’s kites fly. But a central character so insistent on his own pain, who never makes the leap to acknowledging that of others, leaves me wishing that I’d seen any one of the other stories intersecting with Amir’s.
The Kite Runner is on until 9 September 2017 at the Nottingham Playhouse. Click here for more details.