A Thousand Splendid Suns

Birmingham Rep


Irish playwright Ursula Rani Sarma’s adaptation of Khaled Hosseini’s international best seller is, like most book to stage productions, two plays, or rather a play for two audiences.

There are those who know the book and watch with a critical eye to see how the picture they had painted in their own mind has been portrayed, and there are those who, having never read the book, arrive with a blank canvas.

The trick is to balance the two, a play that can stand on its own yet still fill the needs of those coming to see a favourite book brought to life.

By and large this Birmingham Rep production, a European premiere and the soon to depart artistic director Roxana Silbert’s directing swansong, manages it, at least as far as a play for the uninitiated goes.

I have never read the book but those I spoke to who had found it less intense on stage than page, and, despite the litany of misery heaped almost daily on the female protagonists in both mediums, they saw the dramatisation as less uplifting, less emotionally involving, and containing less hope than the book.

Perhaps that is not surprising; a novel of 384 pages turned into a stage play just shy of two and a half hours, including interval, can carry the narrative and present the characters, but has neither time nor scope to fully explore feelings and thoughts, to create the intimacy and depth afforded to the written word.


Sujaya Dasgupta as Laila with Naveed Khan as her father Babi before war took its toll. Pictures: Pamela Raith Photography

Like the book the play is about humanity, about friendship, about the power of love, about the capacity of the human spirit to endure and survive amid the horrors and of depravity suffered by victims, in this case Afghans, and especially women.

Afghanistan, almost three times the size of the United Kingdom, has been involved in wars and empires for much of its history and the play opens with the teen Laila, a lovely performance by Sujaya Dasgupta, helping her father to pack. Hakim, Babi, is a liberal, educated teacher, played by Naveed Khan, who has brought his daughter up to appreciate poetry – the title comes from Kabul by 17th century Iranian poet Saib Tabrizi – and talks of the days when women could run schools and held posts in government. He is a dreamer, an academic, gentle, kind . . . civilised.

Her mother, Fariba, played by Lisa Zahra, is more serious but not unkind. The loss of her two sons in the ongoing war weighs heavy.

And it is the war that is causing the family to pack up and leave as shells land on Kabul. The Russians are trying to prop up their puppet government against the mujahideen, a ragbag of warring tribes, backed invariably by the USA, united against the Soviet invasion and Laila’s life changes forever when a shell obliterates her home and family.

She is taken in by a neighbour, Rasheed, a shoemaker with his own shop, comfortably off and with a kindly manner which barely masks his brutal nature. Life for Laila is going to get a whole lot worse.


 Pal Aron as the brutal Rasheed preaches his patriarcic creed  to wives Sujaya Dasgupta  as Laila and Amina Zia as Mariam

He has a wife, Mariam, played by Amina Zia, an illiterate, illegitimate woman, old by her 30s, treated as a serf.

Apparently in the book he is pure evil. Much worse than here, which must be going some as Pal Aron gives us a man who claims to only want to protect his wives – he marries Laila by trickery – but protect them as belongings, mere chattels, any sign of disobedience, any slight, real or imagined, and a beating would ensue with the particular nasty twist that Mariam was made responsible for Laila, so would take her beatings. Lovely man. 

The Russians were driven out but that only opened the next chapter of Afghanistan’s troubled story as the Taliban took control, Islamic fundamentalists who dragged Afghanistan back 1,000 years.

So with brutality on the streets and in the home we see a relationship at first difficult, bordering on hatred on Mariam’s part, grow into friendship and even love, like mother and child, and we see Laila’s children grow, Aziza, played by Shala Nyx, who also plays the young Mariam, and her son Zalmai, played by Mollie Lambert.

Zalmai is being brought up in his father’s image, men can do as they like while a woman’s role is to comply – except Zalmai is uneasy at his father’s teachings.

We have flashbacks with Nana, Mariam’s mother, played by Lisa Zahra, a servant made pregnant by her employer, wealthy cinema owner Jalil, played by Munir KAairdin, who sends mother and daughter away, to live in poverty in a village on the outskirts. He sees Mariam every Thursday . . . but never in public.


Laila with long lost childhood friend Tariq, played by Waleed Akhtar

And there is the young Tariq, Laila’s childhood friend . . . and it transpires, lover . . . who had left Kabul with his family just before the shell destroyed Laila’s life.

She is told he has died – a trick to gain her hand in marriage – but that is not the end of their story.

The cast of nine play all manner of parts from Taliban interrogators to violent militiamen, women doctors denied drugs or anaesthetic in a women’s hospital to a kindly Mullah as we follow Laila’s path through her nightmares and her attempts to escape.

If you are looking for entertainment then this is not for you. It is an uncomfortable, even depressing watch, and, sadly, is only a pale staging of a world that was much worse for those who suffered under the Taliban’s brutal regime in real life.

There is the odd smile, even a laugh here and there, but they are few and far between in a world where women are treated as tools and war crimes and human rights abuses are the norm.

Yet as the light in Laila’s life grows darker with each passing year, even forced to put her daughter in an orphanage because she cannot afford to feed her, we finally reach the ultimate sacrifice, and for the first time see the one thing she had not had since her family was killed – hope.

It is beautifully acted, a sad story which was well told, if a little confusing until you got the hang of the flashbacks, all on a set from Ana Inés Jabares-Pita which evokes a Middle Eastern village and the foothills of the Hindu Kush.

Simon Bond’s lighting is unobtrusive yet subtly adds to the narrative while David Price’s sound design, linked to music composed by him and Mahmood Kamen is evocative of the region.

It is a fine production, well-paced, thought provoking and, thanks to that one final moment, ends with a spark of hope. To 18-05-19

Roger Clarke


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