Review: A Thousand Splendid Suns @ Northern Stage

Carys Rose Thomas reviews Ursula Rani Sarma's adaptation of Khaled Hosseini's best-selling novel

Carys Rose Thomas
31st May 2019
Pamela Raith Photography

The play begins with Laila’s father (Naveed Khan) reciting Saib-e-Tabrizi’s poem ‘Kabul’  from a book. This book, with it’s striking and colourful cover, visible even from where I was sat, is a symbol which follows Laila (Sujaya Dasgupta) throughout the play. It, like her, survives.

Leila and her father. Image: Pamela Raith Photography

In this play, adapted from Khaled Hosseini’s award-winning novel which goes by the same name, follows the relationship between two women living in Afghanistan in the 60s - early 2000s. The focus on literature and education throughout the text mapped on to my own experience of the text, as Khaled Hosseini holds strong associations for me with A level English. Seeing Mariam (Amina Zia) and Aziza (Shala Nyx) so excited at the prospect of education left me reflecting on my own time at school studying Hosseini, and how readily education is taken for granted by those for whom the prospect of no education at all has never entered their lives.

The play’s drive was to educate its audience on the suffering women have endured and still endure today in Afghanistan. There was one particular moment surrounding a character having a cesarian without anaesthetic, a situation Hosseini based on a story he was told by a physical in Kabul, which drove home the trauma women living in Afghanistan have gone through and still endure. Given the play’s focus on educating its audience and exposing lesser publicised experiences, I would have expected it to be less melodramatic at times. There were moments in which too much was directly said with words and not enough implicitly said through actions. In many of the less dramatic conversational scenes between characters, it felt as though they were over-acting, which left little room for characters or the drama to grow in necessary moments of action.

Sara manages to stray true to the original novel whilst transforming the play into a work of art in its own right

This also felt like a compromise of interest with regards to the play’s focus on educating its audience. There were multiple audible gasps and murmurs from the predominantly-white western crowd, who were there to be inadvertently educated on events in Afghanistan through the lens of these two women. At times the melodrama of the scenes got in the way of driving home the severity of these situations, and felt like a chance for the audience to gasp at a spectacle rather than seriously consider the realness of the events unfolding onstage.

Mariam holding Aziza as a baby. Image: Pamela Raith Photography.

The production itself, however, was undeniably beautiful. The set was frequently awash with warm and vibrant colours, a testament to Kabul’s beauty which Hosseini emphasises in all of his writing. Designer Ana Inés Jabares-Pita managed to carve out a tiny piece of Kabul's vibrance and bring it to us on a dark, damp evening in the North East. The production did well to fill the vast space that is Northern Stage’s Stage 1, with lots of dynamic movement and lighing (courtesy of Siman Bond) holding the audience's gaze throughout. As far as adaptations go, Ursula Rani Sarma has done a great job of condensing the roughly 400-page novel into a production which runs at under 2 hours. Sara manages to stray true to the original novel whilst also transforming the play into a work of art in its own right.

One opportunity evident to me in productions like this one, is the scope it has to bring in audiences who do not usually attend the theatre. There will be many people living in the North East who will have come to the UK from countries suffering the effects of conflict, people who may identify with Leila and Mariam’s stories. Programming shows like this present Northern Stage with opportunities to work with local support groups and charities to bring in audiences for whom this show could have a lasting impact, something which I hope they consider doing in the future.

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