Culture Writer Frankie Rhodes reviews a moving touring production of Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Spendid Suns
When at the theatre, the audience are accustomed to applauding, when the curtain falls for the end of Act 1, for example, or when there is a natural pause in the action. But never before at the theatre have I experienced an audience applauding so emphatically in response to the sheer talent of the actors on stage. At the REP, taking in A Thousand Splendid Suns, I joined in with this well-deserved appreciation.
A Thousand Splendid Suns is an adaptation of the best-selling novel by Khaled Hosseini, known for his explorations of topics such as war and domestic abuse, and the heartbreaking narratives that emerge from these issues. With its violent themes, and the action taking place over a long period of time, this novel proposes a difficult challenge to depict well on stage. Yet, a combination of stunning scenery, flashback techniques and expert acting made for an adaptation that brought the novel alive, so that the audience were quite literally sharing a home with the characters, living and seeing their suffering first-hand.
The plot focuses on two women- Mariam, scarred by her traumatic childhood and forced to live with a man who regards her as a disappointment, and Laila, ripped from a loving family and forced to face the harsh demands of adulthood all too soon. Both find themselves involved with Rasheed, a small-minded, cruel man who wears his masculinity as a weapon of power. And surrounding them always is a war-stricken Afghanistan, where the Taliban dictate the lives of women.
Hosseini’s setting might easily seem a harrowing dystopia, only the difference is, it’s real, and reflects the reality of many women living in Afghanistan during the civil war. The scenery at the REP reflected this disharmonious, fragmented world, with the patterned backdrop literally splitting in half upon the sound of shelling. The action began by focusing on Laila, depicting her home as a simple place with patterned rugs, a few belongings, and a cave-like opening acting as the entrance. Throughout the course of the play, this space became Rasheed’s suffocating household, Mariam’s childhood shack, and the wasteland marking the borders between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Despite the dire political situation, there is a real sense of pride in cultural expression in this production. Actors danced and sang in Farsi between scenes, and at one point several women appeared onto stage wearing different coloured burqas, in a way that was hauntingly beautiful. The cast were also able to incorporate humour into such a harrowing story, and at times one almost felt ashamed for laughing during the play- but it was funny, and they allowed this to be part of the narrative.
A particularly humourous character was Amina Zia as Mariam, who initially appeared simply as a grumpy, worn-out, middle-aged woman. But just as the novel slowly reveals, she became so much more than that, and by the end of the production she had won the heart of every audience member. Her younger self was expertly portrayed by Shala Nyx, who later took on the role of Aziza, displaying such a child-like joy that you were temporarily distracted from the harshness of the outside world. As a young Mariam, she held a wooden puppet as a symbolic representation of her Father. This served not only to portray the artificiality of their relationship, but to draw a comparison between the two individuals: with Mariam so rich and full of substance, and her Father essentially wooden and empty of life.
Alongside Mariam’s sensible, steady persona, Sujaya Dasgupta shone as the kind-hearted, courageous Laila, still with her head in the clouds even after years of being dragged down. An astonishing aspect was the way that the character aged, lowering her voice and appearing to look physically older as time passed, despite a lack of visual effects. In fact, the cast members in general needed no extravagant visuals to portray certain events and milestones- they did this through their highly convincing acting, often using mime to fill in the narrative gaps.
Terrorizing the lives of these women was Rasheed, who was fittingly patronizing, self-righteous and sarcastic, with a core of malicious anger that revealed itself all too often. Whilst the production chose not to depict a fraction of the most difficult scenes on stage, the details that they did include were still excruciating to watch. But the sheer force of the women meant that Rasheed’s behaviour only served to made Mariam and Laila appear stronger, building firmer alliances with the audience.
During one particularly difficult scene, which depicted a childbirth, the audience were silent in solemn anticipation, with the cast demanding that we take note of what these women have been through- what so many women go through. The repeated mantra of Mariam’s Mother was Zahmat- endure, and Lisa Zahra’s ghostly appearances on stage signified her ongoing influence on Mariam’s life. By the end of the play, the audience were taught that in 2019, we don’t have to just endure – we can stand up and resist injustice.
The tiered stage meant that soldiers representing the Taliban were present almost at all times, enforcing a general atmosphere of conflict. At other moments, it was women who sat scattered around the stage, providing metaphorical support to Mariam and Laila. The production kept its political themes at the centre, revealing shocking details, such as Aziza’s reading out of the oppressive Taliban regulations. It explored issues that could not be more relevant to our lives today: concerning refugees, borders, inequality. All too often we are able to distance ourselves from the news, brush off these matters as unrelated to our lives. But when we see the people represented on stage- the very people whose lives are torn apart by such issues- it really forces us to listen and pay attention.
There is little to critique with such a stunning production, save for a couple of visual effects that appeared to be out of place. It would not be an exaggeration to say that every single audience member was entertained, shocked and moved by the action that took place during just over a couple of hours. Aside from being politically relevant, this production is just so unbelievably good, and I urge anyone to catch it before it finishes its time in Birmingham.