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The Kite Runner comes to the stage with audiences ‘shaky and in floods of tears’

PUBLISHED: 13:00 20 December 2016

The Kite Runner. Picture: Robert Day

The Kite Runner. Picture: Robert Day

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BRIDGET GALTON talks to actor Ben Turner about the emotional hit of The Kite Runner

The Kite Runner. Picture: Robert Day The Kite Runner. Picture: Robert Day

The Kite Runner was a publishing sensation that put a human face on Afghanistan’s turbulent past at a time when the country was back in the news for all the wrong reasons.

But how to turn Khaled Hosseini’s 2003 multigenerational bestseller into a compelling stage drama?

Matthew Spangler’s adaptation which premiered in Nottingham in 2013, has received rave reviews and now transfers to Wyndham’s Theatre. Ben Turner who plays the lead, Amir, admits it’s always hard to turn a well loved book into a play.

“Books are so full of detail it’s hard to convey that in a play or film but the Kite Runner is such a cracking story even the clipped version packs a punch.

“Purists who love the book - and I am one - may be annoyed that there are a few bits missing but it already runs at two and a half hours so I would challenge them: ‘Put your favourite bit back in and sit there for another hour.’”

He adds: “When a lot of people know and love the book in a strange way, even the bits that are not in somehow come across if you know them and feel them.”

Set between 1970s Kabul and post 9/11 America it follows the moving story of childhood friends Amir and Hassan, The Kite Runner of the title.

The son of a wealthy merchant, Amir is desperate to win the approval of a father who criticises his weakness and cowardice.

The Kite Runner. Picture: Robert Day The Kite Runner. Picture: Robert Day

But when he and Hasan, the son of his father’s servant win a kite fighting contest, a violent act leads to a betrayal that echoes down the years as the two families are caught up in the fall of Afghanistan’s monarchy, Soviet intervention, a refugee exodus, and the rise of the Taliban regime.

Turner who plays both young and grown up Amir describes it as a “boy to man journey” that explores guilt and redemption.

“The book is less about what’s happening in Afghanistan and more of an origins tale about a father, a son and a family, with themes of betrayal and redemption that everyone can relate to,” says the 36-year-old.

“We in the west all have an idea about what Afghanistan is, what terrorism is, and immigration but the Kite Runner does a fantastic job - without banging you over the head - of humanising those issues and educating people. It’s just about a family.

“Ultimately it’s about having to face the demons of the past. Something very bad happens to him as a boy. He locks it away in a box and runs away from it. It’s always with him and many years later as a successful married writer he is forced to go and face it.”

Turner knows all about the father/son dynamic, describing his actor father, Graham Turner, currently appearing as The Fool to Antony Sher’s King Lear at the Barbican as “My hero and mentor.”

“It’s his fault I am an actor. We are very different in what we do, but playing a lead in the West End while he’s at The Barbican is something to celebrate; a real sense of achievement.”

Turner grew up in Hackney with an Iranian mother and British father and now lives in Baker Street. From frequent visits to Iran as a child he felt he “knew the very specific landscape” of the Kite Runner which also deals with the survivor’s guilt of those who flee a stricken country.

The Kite Runner. Picture: Robert Day The Kite Runner. Picture: Robert Day

“Unless you have been there, it’s hard to describe. It has a particular smell and feel, this dusty landscape I haven’t been for 20 years, so it’s a memory through a boy’s eyes. I’d like to go back but it’s been a turbulent time.”

With live percussion from an on-stage tabla player who creates the evocative soundtrack that “takes you to a place,” there’s a sense of the performers donning their characters and telling the story.

Turner adds: “It’s a sad tale but although it’s not all resolved or tied up in a neat bow there is hope. We all make mistakes. Amir makes a good start, he’s able to go back and have a go at fixing it but he pays a very big price for doing so.”

And the actor, who spent three years playing nurse Jay Faldren in Casualty, adds that he’s never experienced the response from audience before: “We’re the underdog with no big stars who can bring in money, but it has so moved people we’ve had standing ovations. They are shaky and in floods of tears.”

The Kite Runner is at Wyndham’s Theatre from December 21 to March 11.

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