The Kite Runner: An interview with the director
After two West Ends seasons playing to more than 100,000 people The Kite Runner is heading out on a UK tour, much to the delight of director Giles Croft.
“Clearly there’ll be people who know it and they’ll have their reactions and responses,” he says of the acclaimed stage adaptation of Khaled Hosseini’s best-selling novel, “but I’ve seen how people who come into contact with it for the first time are so profoundly moved by it. It’s an exciting experience to be a part of.”
Adapted by American playwright Matthew Spangler and premiering in California in 2009 (six years after the book was first published and two years after the film version came out), Giles first brought it to the UK in 2014 as a Nottingham Playhouse Theatre Company/ Liverpool Everyman & Playhouse production. Shortlisted for a WhatsOnStage Award for best regional production, it transferred to the Wyndham’s Theatre in the West End in 2016 where The Stage called it “spellbinding” and was such a hit during its limited run that it returned to the West End, this time at the Playhouse Theatre, just four months later.
Croft, who was artistic director at Nottingham Playhouse for 18 years and directed more than 50 productions there before stepping down last November, rates The Kite Runner as a soaring highlight of his career so far. “The response is always extraordinarily powerful and we are fortunate to get standing ovations at every performance, with audiences connecting deeply and emotionally with the characters and the story,” he says.
Hewing closely to Hosseini’s book, it features well-to-do Amir as the regretful narrator of a tale in which, as a child in 1970s Kabul, he abandoned his friend, servant and the kite runner of the title Hassan during a savage attack by a neighbourhood bully. Some three decades later Amir is living in America, working as a successful novelist, when he gets the chance to atone – making a dangerous return to his now Taliban-controlled homeland on the eve of America’s invasion.
It is, Giles strongly believes, a story with universal resonance. “It speaks to all people through the core themes of guilt, forgiveness and redemption. Those are things that we all have some connection with. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you are, it will speak to you.”
Raj Ghatak, who plays Amir in the touring production, agrees. He read the book when it first came out. “And I thought it was beautiful,” he says of a tale which he feels speaks to all cultures. “As much as it’s a story that travels between Afghanistan and America, everybody can identify with it on some level.”
Jo Ben Ayed, who played Hassan on tour last year and is reprising the role for the 2018 dates, underlines his co-star’s view. “It’s so relevant with everything that’s going on in the world,” says the young actor. “It shows that if we forget our past then history will repeat itself. It provides context for the Taliban era, asking ‘What lead up to it?’ and ‘What were the causes for it?’ Things are still brimming, with everyone kind of on the edge in the world, so it’s important to get the themes of this story across – that we’re all the same and we shouldn’t be fighting. The key points are all about relationships and connections.”
Hosseini was working as a doctor in California when he wrote The Kite Runner, never imagining that after its publication in 2003 it would go on to sell more than 20 million copies – helped by no greater a champion than Oprah Winfrey as well as the success of the 2007 film adaptation. Coming out after the 9/11 attacks, the story resonated with readers who weren’t necessarily familiar with Afghanistan and the Taliban before the Twin Towers fell.
Matthew Spangler did his adaptation before the film came out, using Hosseini’s concept of Amir as the first-person narrator and sticking closely to the story rather than using plot diversions added for the movie. “They did a fine job with the film,” he says, “but to me the heart of The Kite Runner is the narration – hearing the main character tell you his story and why these events are so significant.”
The playwright spent nine months on research. Matthew and Khaled both live in the San Francisco Bay area so they met to discuss the project. Khaled’s father-in-law, who was also originally from Afghanistan and moved to America, proved invaluable. “I’d get ideas from the books I was reading, then I’d go over to his house, we’d sit together and I’d bounce my ideas off him. That was so valuable because I’d get another take on things and he’d point me towards other sources.”
The original production opened in 2009 at the San Jose Repertory Theatre. Bringing it to Nottingham Playhouse five years later, Giles Croft knew it came with high expectations. “Because so many people knew the novel we had to think through how true we were going to be to those expectations,” he recalls. “Where we going to set a new challenge for people familiar with the book or were we going to try and comfort them? The choice we made was to invest in the character of Amir as the storyteller in the same way the novel does. Once we’d made that choice everything else became quite clear and I think one of the reasons it’s so successful is because you get inside Amir’s head the way you do in the novel.”
Having no narrator in the film was “a completely legitimate option but it changes the nature of the relationship of the audience to that story,” says Giles, who decided not to use a child actor to play Amir as a youngster, as he had been in the Stateside production. “You’re inside Amir’s head – the dilemmas he has, the emotional traumas he has, the journey of his memory and his guilt. It seems to me that’s much more interesting and complex when you have one person playing both.”
Raj Ghatak, whose previous credits include Bombay Dreams in the West End and Everybody’s Talking About Jamie at Sheffield Crucible, admits that being on stage for more than two hours is a challenge. “I narrate the show, then go into the scenes as I remember and recount the story so there are points where I speak in an American accent, then I become a ten-year-old boy speaking Dari, then I’m American again. At various points I range between age ten up to late-30s so I have to negotiate that along with Amir’s emotional journey.”
He’s looking forward to taking it on tour. “I’ll be interested to see how the responses will vary from region to region or in fact if they’re the same. Certain cities might respond to it differently or perhaps more vocally.”
Jo Ben Ayed, who was fresh out of drama school when he played Hassan on tour last year, can vouch for that, saying: “Each city has a different response – they laugh at certain bits, for example – but generally they all respond to the same core themes of love, family, connection and friendship and culture and tradition.”
There have been some refinements and adjustments for the tour of 16 cities and towns across the UK and Ireland, although they are mainly pragmatic choices rather than artistic ones. “It’s about how much technology you can take out on tour and what you can do in a couple of hours when you have to get the show up in a new venue,” Giles explains. “Some things are a little simpler, although I don’t thing anyone coming to see the show would know it; it’s changes we’ve made in order to facilitate the same experience.”
Video projections will still be used to convey time and location, taking the audience from Kabul to San Francisco via Afghan streets and Pakistan borders, and the kites are the same – a mix of indoor kites (“They’re slightly ethereal and beautiful,” says Giles) as well as actors miming flying the ones that would be high up in the air.
Jo Ben is in his element as kite-running Hassan. He’s adept at the skill, having done it when he was growing up in Tunisia. “It’s a lot of fun,” he says, adding that Tunisia shares some of the same cultures as Afghanistan in terms of family and tradition. “So I can bring that experience to the role. Also back in Tunisia there were servants and I was friends with some of them. I got to know them and understand what they were like behind the scenes, behind closed doors. With friends they’re just friends, just as Amir and Hassan have that one beautiful relationship from one human to another.”
Amir, the actor who plays him believes, is a misunderstood character. “A lot of people say he’s not a very nice guy,” says Raj, “but he’s gone through quite a lot. As with most people he’s striving for his parents’ approval, in this case his father’s approval. They are both very different, which causes clashes at times. There’s also the complexity of the socio-economic set-up where Amir and Hassan are best friends, but there’s no getting away from the elephant in the room that Hassan is a mere servant. They’re friends when it suits them but Amir i
s very aware he can pull that card when he needs to.”
Croft thinks it’s important to tell a story about Muslim culture with Muslim characters that aren’t demonised. “They might be conflicted and some are better than others, but fundamentally it’s a human story and any story about forgiveness and redemption is worth telling whenever and wherever it’s set. It’s something we need to be reminded of and it’s especially important to be reminded of what’s happening in Afghanistan and to portray it not simply as a war-torn nation but as a place with a complex, interesting history and a wonderful culture.”
Matthew Spangler says the play covers many universal themes: A father and son relationship, friendship, love, global politics, refugees, forgiveness and redemption. “A more conventional play might just choose one of those themes, but in The Kite Runner all the themes kind of swim around each other. There’s always something new happening on stage and something new to think about.”
The playwright hopes audiences will be moved by it. “It’s a very sad but hopeful and moving story,” he says. “Maybe people will leave with a greater understanding of the themes and it’s great if they do, but at the very basic level it’s a piece of storytelling and emotion.”