Viewing Afghanistan’s recent history through the experiences of three overlapping generations of women, Khaled Hosseini’s novel A Thousand Splendid Suns tells a harrowing tale of endurance and everyday heroism. On paper, it’s a natural fit for the Birmingham Repertory Theatre’s outgoing artistic director Roxana Silbert, whose tenure since 2012 has been marked by a commitment to programming ambitious, grandiose productions, and for foregrounding diverse voices.
The show grapples with bleak themes – domestic abuse, the subjugation of women, and the arbitrary atrocities of war – which absolutely merit the seriousness with which they’re treated here. There’s no denying the visceral power of the relentless shocks the characters suffer through on their way to a marginally better future. But in condensing the expansive, lyrical source material into a snappy sequence of fast-flowing, functional scenes, Ursula Rani Sarma’s adaptation becomes merely melodramatic – two hours of straining portentousness interspersed with unpredictable screams and impromptu whippings.
But for all that, there are moments of beauty and inventiveness here too. A squadron of paper planes, made from Taliban propaganda pamphlets, flutter down from above. A woman has an out of body experience during a flogging, slipping out from under the hunched layers of her burka, which remains standing, unsupported, behind her.
Pal Aron is a focused and menacing presence as abusive polygamist Rasheed, prowling the stage in silhouette when he isn’t demanding to be the centre of attention. He’s an appalling figure, the kind of man who tries to get his way with put upon, “the things I do for you” wheedling and, when that fails, jumps straight to beatings and threats of infanticide.
Amina Zia plays his long-suffering first wife Mariam with a mixture of weariness and indomitable dignity in the face of violence, humiliation, and displacement by younger rival Laila. As the two women slowly bond over their shared misery, Sujaya Dasgupta’s Laila gradually goes from wide-eyed child to hardened survivor, clinging to life’s joys as her freedoms are eroded by her loathsome husband, by poverty, and by the succession of increasingly repressive fundamentalist factions that seize power in her country.
The set by Ana Inés Jabares-Pita consists of a desert landscape of plasticky, gold-flecked rock, backed by a richly decorated frieze of traditional designs. These rip apart in the opening scene as the world and family Laila has known is quite literally shattered by a wayward rocket. It all serves as something of a blank canvas for Simon Bond’s lush and elusive lighting design, which evokes the delicate extremes of desert twilight and mountain storms. Gentle magentas grade into deep indigo, and rich tangerine blazes away behind the jagged horizon, an understated backdrop for an otherwise thoroughly unsubtle production.