Following the stage success of The Kite Runner, Khaled Hossein’s bestselling novel A Thousand Splendid Suns has also been given the stage treatment in this UK premiere production at The REP. After a visit to Afghanistan, Hossein decided to write about the horrific female experience, almost as a contrast to The Kite Runner, through the tragic stories of two women; Laila and Mariam both wives to an abusive man Rasheed.
Although there is a cast of 9, Ursula Rani Sarma’s adaptation primarily focuses on these three characters, especially Laila played by Sujaya Dasgupta. While she goes through incredibly painful and traumatic situations it is clear that Laila as a character is a fighter who in the face of misogyny and danger is totally in control of her story that Dasgupta terrifically evokes within her performance. Mariam, the older wife has also gone through a huge amount of suffering and she is more reserved about fighting her way out of her situation, but Amina Zia gives a heart-breaking performance that shows she is willing to sacrifice herself in some instances to protect Laila and her children. But it is a monstrous performance by Pal Aron as Rasheed that makes our skin crawl and gut wretch at the brutal misogyny, manipulation and abuse that he brings. In this sort of story, it almost feels wrong to call him a “baddie” or a “villain” which would pantomime-ify it, but there is absolutely no denying that is what he is. He is the absolute catalyst to the pain and misery in these innocent characters and a ruthless reminder that in Eastern cultures and other parts of the world, these are real situations.
While it is a brave and boundary-breaking story to attempt to tackle on the stage, you equally need a bold and striking production to present it, however, sadly this one at times misses that opportunity. It all feels a bit too safe and lacking the full depth required for such an emotionally brutal story. Yes, Sarma’s script does tread the balance of light-heartedness and tragedy pretty well, and director Roxana Silbert ticks the boxes with elements that should go into an epic stage piece such as an Afghan desert set design by Ana Inés Jabares-Pita with colourful lighting by Simon Bond and music by Mahmood Kamen but it does all feels like it could do with tightening up and putting in the extra detail and professionalism to entirely capture its audience. Even the fight scenes by Terry King and magic by Ben Hart don’t quite get us on the edge of our seats like they should
Despite this, the production clearly did something right as a few members of the packed out audience rose to their feet by the end having been engrossed in this heart-breaking but empowering tale. I hope over time the weaker elements of this production can be re-thought as it is absolutely full of potential, but anyone who loves thrilling and intense stories about how we as human beings can find lightness in the darkest of situations then perhaps you may find that in this thought-provoking piece.
A Thousand Splendid Suns runs at Birmingham Repertory Theatre until Saturday 18th May.
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