Chris Eldon Lee reviews ‘A Thousand Splendid Suns’, which is at Birmingham Repertory Theatre until Saturday 18th May.
The trouble with this new stage adaptation of “A Thousand Splendid Suns” is that it’s not as compelling as the stage adaptation of its predecessor, “The Kite Runner”. I’m in no position to compare Khaled Hosseini’s two books (though a follow-up to a smash hit can be tricky) but this dramatization seems squeezed of subtlety and finesse. There is little in this edit to take the audience by surprise.
Visually and musically it is very engaging but Ursula Rani Sarma’s bald and blatant treatment of Hosseini’s story feels prosaic and perfunctory….as if it has been left out in the Afghani sun too long. There is an absence of intimacy. The acting veers towards the over-deliberate.
I fully recognise that a new work should be judged on it’s own merits rather than in comparison with a previous piece; but so many people who loved ‘The Kite Runner’ (I saw the play twice) will be buying tickets for this on the strength of it, I fear my own disappointment may not be unique.
It’s thirty years since the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan…leaving a vacuum for the Taliban to exploit, with its draconian attitude to women’s rights. 15-year-old Laila (a strong and steady central performance from Sujaya Dasgupta) is orphaned in a shell strike. She is pulled from the rubble by a neighbouring man – Rasheed – played with multi-faceted complexity by Pal Aron. He asks her to marry him and, in Afghan society at that time, it makes sense to say ‘yes’, even though his first wife is decidedly hostile to the idea.
Ironically, in a play about women (the two antipathetic wives forming a needy alliance again their monstrous husband) it is Rasheed who is the most demanding character. He is a bad man, of course. He beats his wives and paves the way for his young son to adopt his insidious prejudices. Seen from our western perspective he has few saving graces. But he is a man of his time, place and conditioning. Hosseini, visiting the land of his birth from America, has written a series of deeply conflicting justifications for his behaviour.
Taking Laila as his second wife saves her from the streets – but strengthens his grip over her. He puts food in her mouth – even though he knows she is lying about their baby’s father – but then lies himself, for revenge. The result is a most challenging, uneasy character that is difficult to make decisions about. In that respect, the play’s undercurrent is more powerful than its more obvious mainstream. I can imagine Rasheed’s is a tough skin for an actor to inhabit.
The other characters are clichéd in comparison. Waleed Akhtar’s childhood sweetheart ‘Tariq’ is piously in love and brings Laila cheese from the other love of his life, his goat. Shala Nyx’s ‘Aziza’ can’t bear to go off to a secret school until she realises how wonderful it is. Mollie Lambert gives a most convincing performance as Laila’s son ‘Zalmai’ who, when urged to tell the truth, predictably drops his mother right in it. And Amina Zia’s ‘Mariam’ is taciturn till she makes the rational sacrifice.
Bearing in mind the grinding oppression the women have suffered throughout, the final escape to freedom seems unlikely.
Whilst I can see the value of this play as a telling history lesson for those who were too young to follow Afghani events as the tragedies actually unfolded, as a piece of storytelling it very much feels like a missed opportunity.
The well has run dry. I’m not expecting a trilogy.