Khaled Hosseini’s debut novel “The Kite Runner” remains a literary sensation. A tender, personal narrative that weaves through 25 years of Afghanistan’s history, it has sold more than 30 million copies worldwide. Published in 2003, the novel let readers into a nation that felt far away — politically, culturally and geographically — humanizing a place of war and its people. On the West End stage, however, it feels too much like a story. Faithful to a fault, playwright Matthew Spangler’s adaptation comes in at close to three hours, far longer than Marc Forster’s 2007 film, and gradually becomes bogged down by the guilt at its heart.
Spangler’s script is too cautious by half: It plods through Hosseini’s plot instead of drilling into its depths. Ben Turner’s Amir, an Afghan expat in California, narrates his childhood memories and, on Barney George’s plain wooden stage, steps into 1970s Kabul where he and his friend Hassan (Andrei Costin), the son of his father’s servant, form an inseparable pair. They do so despite differences: one rich, one poor; one articulate, one illiterate; one Pashtun, one Hazara. Together they took part in Kabul’s mass kite battles — Amir steering, Hassan racing after the spoils of downed kits — but on one occasion, Amir watches as his friend is cornered, beaten and raped, before running away.
That betrayal haunts his whole adult life, and it comes to encapsulate his wider sense of survivor’s guilt after Amir escapes Afghanistan with his father when the Russians invade. They set up in San Francisco to start over, only for that guilt to pull Amir back to Afghanistan to make amends. “The past,” he says, “claws its way out.”
Spangler might have made more of that idea. It’s laced through the text, in the ancestral rivalries that still surface today, and in Afghanistan’s long history of conflict. Hosseini reminds us that this republic had ties to America — its children imagine themselves as John Wayne — before it turned communist, and later ultra-conservative under the Taliban. In America, Afghans cling to their old identities — all market traders, but still businessmen, politicians and generals among themselves.
In the end, the story falls back on itself. Betrayals, conflicts and relationships mirror one another, and, after 25 years, its climax hinges on one enormous coincidence. Hosseini’s structure is too neat — made obvious when it’s played straight through — and its crisp irony intrudes on the story’s truth: its testimony to Afghanistan and its history. You feel a writer steering a plot in to land as he ties up its loose ends one by one.
Giles Croft’s humble production plays out as storytelling, occasionally tipping into show-and-tell and thereby slowing its pace. Hanif Khan’s tabala music adds a rich atmosphere, entwined with William Simpson’s smoky skyline projections, but it also ensures an ever-steady pace that makes Spangler’s measured script more monotonous. Nor does Turner’s delivery help. He wallows in guilt and in grief, giving every syllable its due and acting as if through porridge. Costin’s Hassan is altogether livelier, and Emilio Doorgasingh cuts through as Amir’s brusque father. But “The Kite Runner” remains a literary sensation, not a theatrical one.