Northern Stage and Birmingham Rep’s adaptation of A Thousand Splendid Suns stays faithful to the book, but brings a new focus to the treatment of women in Afghanistan – which began earlier than you might think.
Talk to anyone about the history of Afghanistan and they’ll tell you the Taleban took over after the US armed them during the Soviet invasion. There again, talk to anyone about any topical bit of history and they’ll probably tell you whichever cherry-picked version suits whatever point they want to make. Never trust what most people tell you. As often is the case, this version is not wrong, but it’s a very simplistic version that misses out most of the intervening steps. It is this that Khaled Hosseini’s books cover well. In The Kite Runner, the main character flees Afganhistan with his father as things are starting to go downhill and only returns when Taleban rule is at its worst. In A Thousand Splendid Suns, Laila doesn’t get the chance to escape, and witnesses the descent of her country into a theocracy. But it’s a slower descent than you might think, and not just down to Osama Bin Laden’s mates.
At the beginning of the play, Laila lives with her liberal-minded parents in Kabul. Even though her brothers fought and died for the US-backed Muhadajeen, the family is still supportive of the Americans, with her father even wearing an American T-shirt. Unfortunately, Kabul is under attack, and before her family can flee, a shell hits the house and both her parents are killed. Laila only survives because of some neighbours who take her in, but what first appears to be an act of kindness soon turns out to be an act of opportunism and the start of the nightmare. Rasheed is a self-obsessed control-freak who dominates his wife, and now wishes to take Laila as his second – something she is powerless to refuse. Mariam is at first angry with Laila for being upstaged, but as Rasheed’s true colours come to light and Laila sticks up for Mariam, the two form a hasty alliance, soon to become a true friendship.
Alongside this, however, is events going on in Afghanistan. The shelling that killed Laila’s parents is not the fall of Kabul, but a different attack. This timing is important – it will be another five years before the Taleban takes over, but it is already the law that women can’t leave the house without a male relative. Worse Rasheed and other people like him already have the same ideas about women that their future theocracy will share. This might be a surprise, but it isn’t when you think about it. It’s hard to march into a city and enforce your values on an on unwilling populace, but a lot easier if there are plenty of people who already willing to subscribe to the values you impose.
The good guys and bad guys aren’t what you might expect either. When the play flashes back to Mariam’s story (unlike the book, that begins with Mariam’s story, the stage version’s time-frame works round Laila’s story), the Islamic cleric in the town is keen on her getting an education, and her mother who believes a woman’s place is in the kitchen or bedroom. A man runs a school for girls evading the eye of the Taleban, and even an executioner towards the end of the play tries his best to be nice about it. And yet Rasheed, who becomes the number one villain by the end of the story, starts off appearing to be just an ordinary man. In a way, he’s a victim of his own society, and his desperation to have a son must be driven by the circles he’s in that value sons more than daughters. (In fitting irony, when he finally gets one, the kid ends up far closer to his mother and sister than his own father.) Again, this looks like a world where a regressive ideology came not because of a group of fanatics, but because of ordinary people who felt the same. In the end, however, Rasheed has no-one to blame but himself for what he’s become.
If I’ve spent too long talking about the story rather than Northern Stage’s adaptation of it, it’s because Ursula Rani Sarma‘s adaptation does such a good job of capturing the story, and Roxana Silbert does thedirection so smoothly I can talk about it in such depth. I’ve only one limitation to pick out, which isn’t really a limitation but the high standards it was up against. Brighton Rock, The Lovely Bones and Noughts and Crosses have all come to Northern Stage with brilliantly symbolic and memorable sets; here, the desert-themed set does the job perfectly well as a means of telling the story, but other than that has a more generic and functional feel. However we have been spoilt with set design lately, and this is the closet I can get to a shortcoming with the play.
I could go on. There is still a major plot thread I haven’t even mentioned, so I’ll hold that back as an unexpected twist, but just to leave a hint: note how little resistance Laila puts up to Rasheed’s marriage proposal. Sure, the chance Laila could get out of this was slim, but is the entire reason she concedes so easily? And if not, what else might it be? But I shall leave it there. This is a very worthy adaptation, and although the tightened time-frame may not be to the tastes of the purists, the focus on the the Taleban years and the run-up to that time is a timely warning of all that is needed to usher in a repressive state.