Theatre Review: A Thousand Splendid Suns at Northern Stage

The latest production at Northern Stage, Newcastle, is an ambitious presentation of Khaled Hosseini’s masterpiece, ‘A Thousand Splendid Suns’.

It takes a brave playwright to take on such a powerful novel which takes place over more than two decades and encompasses several life stories within. Ursula Rani Sarma has achieved a remarkable result which isn’t flawless but is still exceptional.

A Thousand Splendid Suns company – photo by Pamela Raith

The story follows the lives of Laila (Sujaya Dasgupta) and Mariam (Amina Zia), thrown together as the wives of Rasheed (Pal Aron) when war in Afghanistan leaves young Laila an orphan and, secretly, pregnant by the man she believes dead. Marrying Rasheed for protection in a dangerous and volatile country, Laila is resented by Mariam and soon realises Rasheed is a cruel and selfish man. In the midst of the Taliban regime, the two women find each other and support one another through years of hardship and abuse.

There have to be compromises when adapting a novel. In this production, the first act feels somewhat rushed as whole, lengthy sections of the book are delivered piecemeal in a handful of scenes. The second half is much more successful as it follows the original story more faithfully.

But what the play may lack a little out of necessity, it makes up for in the visualisation of what can only be imagined when reading. In particular, the recurring motif of Fariba, Mariam’s dead mother (Lisa Zahra), throughout the story is a brilliant touch which lends so much pathos and helps bring closure in the end.

L to R: Sujaya Dasgupta (Laila), Pal Aron (Rasheed) Amina, Zia (Mariam) – photo by Pamela Raith

The actors are generally well-chosen. Pal Aron makes a convincing Rasheed – somewhat kind and maybe even charming to an extent, but evil towards the end. He speaks convincingly and you know that he believes much of his own justifications for his actions. This is such a vital part of the character, representing the manipulations not just of Afghan men in Taliban times, but domestic abusers in any country and any age. You can well believe why such a strong and defiant character as Laila meekly obeys most of the time and for so many years. A weak Rasheed would ruin the whole play; Pal Aron sustains it.

Equally essential is the role of Laila. Sujaya Dasgupta does well to present the youthful, girly teenager who we see grow into a weary, grown mother and who somehow manages to stop the flame of hope from going out completely despite her husband’s best efforts. It is a difficult combination to juggle and the actor does well.

I was interested to note Ben Hart listed as magic consultant for this production – not something you see too often – and I am assuming he was responsible from one of the most tragically beautiful moments of the production. Until you see it, it will sound weird when I say the scene where Mariam is beaten with a belt by Rasheed is an astonishing moment. Such theatrical moments of horrific abuse can end up inadvertently pantomime-esque and dehumanising. No such worries here; It’s perfect.

Sujaya Dasgupta (Laila) & ensemble – photo by Pamela Raith

Overall, the production doesn’t quite manage to capture the magic of the book and I would recommend anyone who enjoyed the play but hasn’t read the novel to do so. But the play does manage to bring home the central messages of the horror of domestic abuse and the sisterhood of women who suffer. It is no surprise that the cast and crew appealed for donations to help survivors of abuse in Afghanistan at the end of the performance – and rightly so. For this alone, I can highly recommend going to see the production.

I have to confess, just as the Hosseini’s novel made me cry when I finished it, so this production brought tears to my eyes at the end and I doubt I was the only one. More than once I heard the audience gasp in shock at the horror of what these two women endure and we all engaged in the telling. Though beautiful and magical, this production never lets you forget the reality which inspired the tale.

A Thousand Splendid Suns’ is showing at Northern Stage until Saturday 15 June. For tickets call the box office on 0191 230 5151 or go to http://www.northernstage.co.uk

Social Entrepreneur, educationalist, bestselling author and journalist, D K Powell is the author of the bestselling collection of literary short stories “The Old Man on the Beach“. His first book, ‘Sonali’ is a photo-memoir journal of life in Bangladesh and has been highly praised by the Bangladeshi diaspora worldwide. Students learning the Bengali language have also valued the English/Bengali translations on every page.

Both ‘The Old Man on the Beach’ and ‘Sonali’ are available on Amazon for kindle and paperback. Published by Shopno Sriti Media.

D K Powell is available to speak at events (see his TEDx talk here) and can be contacted at dkpowell.contact@gmail.com

Ken writes for a number of publications around the world. Past reviewer for Paste magazine, The Doughnut, E2D and United Airways,  and currently reviews for Lancashire Life magazine.

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