Adapted by Ursula Rani Sarma from the best-selling novel by Khaled Hosseini, A Thousand Splendid Suns skilfully negotiates the tricky balance of tackling a bleak subject without either minimising it or becoming too overwhelming.
That’s not to say that moments of Roxana Silbert’s production aren’t incredibly tough to watch. A beating goes on so long you have to look away; the scene where a pregnant woman is told she needs a caesarean – but that the hospital is out of anaesthetic – drew a collective gasp from the audience. But it’s to Silbert’s credit as a director that nothing feels gratuitous; she understands the weight of the story doesn’t need empty flourishes.
…Suns is the story of three generations of women in a country torn apart by war. Teenager Laila is left orphaned by a shell-strike that injures her and kills her family. Taken in by the neighbours who rescue her from the rubble, she agrees to become her host Rasheed’s second wife, much to the chagrin of his first, Mariam. But as the country becomes ever more ravaged by conflict and women increasingly pay the price, the wives form an unlikely bond, as Mariam – embittered by multiple miscarriages – is softened by her affection for Laila’s child.
It was the production’s first night in Northern Stage – which has a much smaller seat capacity than earlier places on the tour – and it showed. For the first twenty minutes or so, the acting was pitched too high – I was at the back of the auditorium and felt the actors were straining to reach some non-existent audience far behind me. But once they settled into the space, the cast unfurled performances of real emotional depth.
As Laila, Sujaya Dasgupta deftly manoeuvres the transformation from adored child of loving, progressive parents to a woman whose innate optimism and spirit are battered but not broken by a bullying husband and the deprivations of war. Amina Zia feels a little clichéd at first as the frumpy, grumpy Mariam, but matures into the real heart of the show – a woman given an unlikely second chance at family and whose gruff veneer hides her own tragedies. Pal Aron deserves particular praise for a compelling turn as their husband. Rasheed, a man whose kind and reasonable demeanour disguises a soft-spoken tyrant, could so easily have slipped into villainous caricature, but instead we see a compassionate portrayal of how a system that oppresses women also badly damages men.
The rest of the cast take on multiple roles. In a nice piece of symmetry, Shala Nyx plays both the young Mariam and Laila’s daughter Aziza – two young women, in their own way, naïve about the world. Waleed Aktar is Tariq, the charismatic young man who Laila wanted to marry, and Munir Khairdin and Naveed Khan play two very different father figures, while Mollie Lambert and Lisa Zahra ably manage the rest of the female roles (with Lambert also playing Laila’s young son Zalmai).
The piece is grounded by Ana Inés Jabares-Pita’s epic set (strikingly lit by Simon Bond). A mammoth desert hill-scape the characters have to constantly manoeuvre, it is both the beauty and the danger of the hills of Kabul. At times it is brutally unforgiving, at others almost other-worldly in its loveliness.
There is a dangerous double disconnect when reviewing a piece that is based on source material you’re unfamiliar with, and a culture that is alien to you – you have to go into it acknowledging your own ignorance. I suspect I missed much of the detail that would be obvious to either lovers of the book, or those more closely connected with the culture it portrays (and I recognise it’s likely a very different experience seeing the show sat in the mostly-white audience of Newcastle compared to the more diverse crowds that would be expected at its earlier stops in Birmingham or Hackney).
But certainly, there are universalities enough for anyone to enjoy. The production captures well the random cruelty of war, how life can change in an instant. Though there is little historical context given to the conflict, there are moments of real-life Handmaid’s Tale horror. The “they can’t do that!” that slides into the desperate “I can’t believe they did that”; the disbelief the women feel as the Taliban’s hold tightens, and a city where women lived independent, professional lives becomes a place where they are treated as wayward chattel.
The piece suffers the same problems as many novel adaptations – at times it feels over expositional and slow, trying to cram in too much plot; at others you can almost feel the richness of the text sliced away, leaving the occasional melodrama of the story exposed. But as the women create their own tightknit family unit, they draw us in too. It’s this emotional connection that gives the production its power and it’s this which makes the denouement, with its balance of painful sacrifice and cautious optimism, in its own way quietly devastating.