“The fine cast of five deliver Ruhl’s honed script with gorgeous vivacity, tongues in cheeks and glints in eyes”
It is easy to fall into a debate about whether Virginia Woolf’s “Orlando” would have the same impact as it did nearly a century ago if she had written it in today’s climate. But we’re going to avoid that digression here. Clearly, it’s influence and relevance is as powerful now as it ever was, not just in its treatment of the subject of gender, but as a satiric look at history, literature and convention. Published in 1928, it was one of Woolf’s best-selling books. And the most enjoyable. Woolf declared while writing it that “my body was flooded with rapture and my brain with ideas”. The novel’s popularity and longevity were practically guaranteed before she even put pen to paper.
And it continues. Both ‘high art’ and gossipy at the same time it has been adapted for theatre and film, most notably Sally Potter’s 1992 release starring Tilda Swinton. Continuing the trend is Sarah Ruhl’s adaptation at the Jermyn Street Theatre. Choosing not to compete with the big budgets, this is a playful and low-key reimagining that focuses on the humour and the subtle mischief; without trying to shoe-horn the original story into a contemporary setting.
We begin in the reign of Elizabeth I. Orlando (Taylor McClaine) is born as a male nobleman with poetic ambitions. With dubious motives, the Virgin Queen adopts him as a pageboy, and a plaything, until her death when Orlando promptly falls for Sasha, an excitable and unreliable Russian princess (a wonderfully skittish but underused Skye Hallam). Orlando’s heart is broken by Sasha, so he briefly returns to his abandoned poetry before heading for Constantinople. It is here that Orlando inexplicably falls asleep for days and awakens to find that he has metamorphosed into a woman. Completely accepting of the change, she is the same person, same personality, same intellect, and while she stays biologically female her amorous inclinations swing both ways throughout the ensuing centuries.
There is a lot to cram into an hour and a half of stage time. The fine cast of five deliver Ruhl’s honed script with gorgeous vivacity, tongues in cheeks and glints in eyes. There is an old-fashioned quality that simultaneously has a timeless feel. We are in the past and the present. They are like a bygone travelling troupe of players who have pitched up in Piccadilly. McClaine, in the titular role, is a delight to watch throughout. Star quality is etched across their performance; a performance imbued with a deadpan humour that matches the ease with which the character switches roles, genders and sensibilities.
Tigger Blaize, Rosalind Lailey and Stanton Wright play the numerous other roles and, comprising a chorus, the trio narrate the story with clarity and precise timing, overlapping the narrative and weaving threads of comedy and insight into the dramatic backdrop. At one point, following the throwaway line “… then he was she…”, we almost expect the chorus to launch into Lou Reed’s “Hey, babe, take a Walk on the Wild Side”.
All in all, though, the production is not quite a walk on the wild side. It still remains relatively safe, veering towards the shock-free traditional. It seems that the memo about safety didn’t reach designer Emily Stuart, whose costumes are daring, colourful and brilliant – a highlight of the show – which add to the sense of fun and irreverence.
This adaptation teases out the theatricality of Woolf’s novel. If the innate radicalism doesn’t quite cut through, the playfulness, the wit and the satirical undertows certainly do. “Orlando” was ahead of its time a century ago. Today it is certainly very much of the time. Make time to see it.
“doesn’t always capture the beauty of the novel, but it certainly wrings the emotion from the central themes and relationships”
Khaled Hosseini’s beautifully crafted debut novel, published in 1993, begins by telling the story of Amir, a young boy from the Kabul, and his close friend, Hassan. Hosseini successfully weaves an intimate saga of guilt and atonement into the framework of an epic backdrop. Although set against a backdrop of the tumultuous events – from the fall of Afghanistan’s monarchy through the Soviet invasion; the exodus of refugees and the rise of the Taliban – the reader is continually drawn into the minds of the main protagonists, and their personal battles and relationships. Presenting the grand scale of its setting with the small scale drama of the characters is always going to be a challenge. Matthew Spangler’s adaptation for the stage is faithful to the book and tells the story with startling clarity. It is inevitably condensed but Spangler manages to include all the key events without muddying the context.
We begin at the end. Afghani immigrant Amir is summoned from his California home to Pakistan by Rahim Khan, an old, dying friend of his father, who enigmatically tells Amir that “there is a way to be good again”. Rewind a quarter of a century and we meet Amir as a wealthy, privileged boy in Afghanistan, and his best friend, Hassan, the son of his father’s servant. When Hassan is brutally assaulted by a local bully, Amir is too scared to save him, and is tormented by feelings of guilt which follow him across the continents and generations. Barney George’s simple but effective set, dominated by a rising and falling kite, neatly evokes the central themes while also setting the scene – deftly transforming the Afghan landscape into the San Francisco skyline. Without having to worry where we are geographically and politically we are free to concentrate on the characters and the story. A story of love and betrayal, fathers and sons, good and evil, and the many grey areas in between.
David Ahmad, as Amir, is central to the drama, alternating between the role of narrator and then stepping into his reminiscences. The play does veer disproportionately towards telling us what happens rather than showing us, but Ahmad is a skilled storyteller whose portrayal is ultimately quite moving, especially in the closing moments when he learns some uncomfortable truths about his childhood. Equally strong support comes from Andrei Costin as the childhood friend, Hassan, who also doubles as his own orphaned son (apologies for the spoiler!) in the second act. Their alliance forms much of the political tension: their respective families coming from opposing ethnic backgrounds, although both becoming victims of the rise of the Taliban.
Dean Rehman cuts a formidable figure as Amir’s father, casting twin shadows of love and overbearing expectations over his susceptible son. The ensemble shift in the background between varying characters, occasionally coming to the fore to highlight key moments in the plot; particularly Lisa Zahra, who encapsulates wonderfully the patience and sorrow of Soraya, a fellow refugee of Amir who becomes his wife.
This production of The Kite Runner doesn’t always capture the beauty of the novel, but it certainly wrings the emotion from the central themes and relationships. In just over two hours we do get a pint-sized version, but it is a clear-cut potted history, thick with the atmosphere of a family saga; an atmosphere intensified by Jonathan Girling’s rhythmic soundscape, played live by Hanif Khan. Hosseini’s words are brought to life from the page in Giles Croft’s captivating production that orchestrates a man’s epic journey to the intimate tempos of his beating heart.
Reviewed by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Irina Chira
The Kite Runner
Richmond Theatre until 14th March then UK tour continues