Review: A Thousand Splendid Suns (Birmingham Rep)

Khaled Hosseini’s novel is adapted for the stage by Birmingham Repertory Theatre, Northern Stage and Nuffield Southampton Theatres

Sujaya Dasgupta (Laila) Amina Zia (Mariam) in A Thousand Splendid Suns
Sujaya Dasgupta (Laila) Amina Zia (Mariam) in A Thousand Splendid Suns
© Pamela Raith

Khaled Hosseini's best-selling novel tracing the fates of two women in Afghanistan is dramatically brought to life in this new production premiered at Birmingham Repertory Theatre.

A Thousand Splendid Suns is Rep artistic director Roxana Silbert's, last Rep show before she leaves Birmingham for London's Hampstead Theatre – and this is a final production to be proud of.

The piece is everything theatre should be. It's gripping, heart-rending, painful to watch at times and at others inspiring. It leaves you outraged and yet also comforted that even in the darkest of situations good can shine through.

Like Hosseini's smash hit The Kite Runner, the story takes us into the wars in Afghanistan where the rise of the Taliban crushes all dissent. It also ensures men primacy which wreaks havoc on Mariam and Laila, the two wives of Rasheed. Initially hostile to each other, the women gradually build an unlikely friendship with a common enemy – their husband. Facing violence and humiliation from which they appear unable to escape due to the Taliban's grip on their homeland, their only resource is each other.

Playwright Ursula Rani Sarma's adaptation of Hosseini's novel is bold but highly successful. Rather than following his book's timeline, she immediately jumps to high drama with the destruction of Laila's parents' and home and then re-tells some of the past through flashbacks. By bringing the meeting between the two women into being so much earlier in the story, she trains our focus on their relationship rather than their two separate narratives.

Pal Aron's Rasheed is initially charming and apparently caring. Rescuing an orphaned Laila from her bombed-out home, he offers her sanctuary and seeming safety with the promise of marriage. But once he has control we see that mask slip and he emerges a brutal and cruel man. And yet, throughout the play, Aron's Rasheed retains a veneer of respectability – appearing to have deluded himself he is a good husband because he provides a home for the women in dangerous times.

As Laila, Sujaya Dasgupta moves from idealistic teenager to disappointed wife to protective mother. As she fights to ensure the safety of her children, the audience can't help but root for this determined young woman.

Amina Zia's Mariam also reveals hidden depths. When we first meet her, Mariam is grumpy and grudging at her unwelcome guest but with time she opens her heart to Laila, becoming a guiding hand and providing the shield Laila needs to survive. Shala Nyx confidently takes on a couple of key roles – the young Mariam, whose tragic life we see in flashbacks, and then Aziza, Laila's growing daughter.

The set by designer Ana Inés Jabares-Pita recalls the hills of Afghanistan rather than the city of Kabul but ensures the drama can move across different settings without any interruption for scene changes.

Silbert's time at Birmingham Rep has seen her direct a number of brave and interesting productions including The Government Inspector and Khandan (Family). Now with A Thousand Splendid Suns she takes a much-loved novel and creates a compelling and thought-provoking piece of theatre which will hopefully have a longer life than this current tour.