17 November 2010

The Kite Runner on stage

The stage adaptation of The Kite Runner that was presented by a New York-based theatre group proved too loud and mocking to capture the essence of Khaled Hosseni's celebrated story about friendship and betrayal

The idea of using popular literature as material for stage seems like a win-win situation. For a majority of those who aren't into reading, a theatrical adaptation of a book gives them easy access to a story that is worth knowing about. Similary, for theatre groups, the exercise is a worthwhile one, since there is always a ready audience waiting to see on stage a story they're already familiar with.

That has been the idea for New York-based theatre group, Literature To Live, and its 89 year old founder Wynn Handman, who started the institution 48 years ago. In the last 15 years or so, the group has been focussing on literature-based theatre in their 'Voices worth hearing' programme and have adapted about 15 books for the stage. The intention, says Chris Snock - teacher and organiser at the institute, is to get those who aren't big readers interested in literature. "A lot of our stage activities are for New York city school kids," he says. And Khaled Hosseni's bestselling novel, The Kite Runner was an obvious choice in this regard. This novel about life in Aghanistan and a tragic tale of love and betrayal, brutality and redemption has been a massive hit all around the world, and to US especially, after 9/11 and Taliban, it opened up a window to this part of the world. Says Chris, "Americans realised that Afghanistan has had a rich culture that dates back to 550 BC, which has been way longer than the five years of Taliban rule they know about."

At the start of the presentation, Chris was especially heartened that many in the audiences had read Hosseni's novel.
The performance was introduced as a particularly challenging one, where one single actor would be bringing to life the novel, enacting 10 different characters. The adaptation limited itself to the first half of the novel, about the childhood friendship between Amir and Hasaan, their ironic fates and the one act of betrayal that changes their lives. This is really the pivot in a novel that starts to get progressively melodramatic and contrived. But NYC-based actor Sohrab Wadia hits a rather discordant note as he attempts to bring the novel alive. For starters, Sohrab's exaggerated body language, tonal quality and overall presence just don't belong by a long stretch to the Afghan world. There's so much of the accented, yuppie New Yorker in him as an actor, that he never truly inhabits Hosseni's world. Also for some inexplicable reason, the writers and Sohrab together treat all the characters with half-mocking jollity which doesn't fit well with some of the emotional scenes. The script is relentlessly verbose, but Sohrab has great felicity with the language and has no trouble mouthing all the lines at one go. While he's not really able to enact Amir or Hassan satisfactorily, he's more convincing as Amir's father and in some of the other older parts.

The audience of course seemed satisfied with the performance, but when we asked Snock about the selection of actor, he admitted there were limitations. "We do the best we can in finding actors who can carry the spirit of the book. I do agree that Sohrab's own personality pervades heavily on the stage, but we've not had a problem with that whenever we've preformed in America. Perhaps, since the novel belongs to to the Asian world, the audience here will have a sharper eye about these nuances," he noted.

Sohrab, while talking to the audiences noted how he their intention was to be minimalistic and hence no props or lights were used. "Our founder Wynn Handman would not even let me use my hands too much and wanted me to keep it in my pockets, so as that audiences could be completely focused on the emotions," he said.

Undoubtedly, the stage can be a great vehicle to bring great literature to audience, to even enhance and illuminate the experience of the written word. Contrarily, it can also prove ineffectual or even injurious to the original work. Let's hope the good overrules the bad in this wonderful bridging of mediums.


Veens said...

I just stumbled onto your blog from Goodreads, while checking the review of a book I was thinking on buying.
Love your writing, it is so beautiful.. you have a way with words.

And I did not know about this theatrical group at all. And I am sure I would be disappointed too. It is such a deep and moving novel, that it has to be dealt with rather delicately.

I do hope they do a better job on there next venture.

sabdhya said...

Thank you so much Veens. Readers like you keep me inspired to write better. Do keep visiting.

I am not a big fan of the novel either - though loved the first 100pages or so.

Nayeem said...

I did love the book actually. When you have already read the book, you go with a preconceived notion and you have the images in your mind of how the whole scene would play out. Any deviation to that and you come out disappointed. But , Afghanistan has that image of kabuliwala in my head who can never to anything wrong and it is certainly devastating to see country going so wrong in its direction.
Thanks for the article. You have captured very well the views of why the show works in US and not in the Asian subcontinent while also giving him some credit. Would love to watch it some day. NICE WORK!!!