When Khaled Hosseini wrote his debut novel, The Kite Runner, he was working as a doctor in northern California.
He never dreamed it would have the impact it did: much of the story, which centres on a privileged Pashtun boy and his Hazara servant-cum-best friend growing up in Kabul, had been mapped out before the fall of the Twin Towers. But since its publication in 2003, at a time when images of Taliban terrorists and Afghanistan's barren landscapes were screened daily to western audiences, the book has sold more than 21m copies. Oprah Winfrey championed it; the 2007 film adaptation grossed almost $75m (£49m). Now it has been adapted for stage – and the cast and crew are, unsurprisingly, feeling the weight of expectation.
They are in rehearsal when I visit in Nottingham, tugging at white kites that swoop like swallows. Ben Turner, who plays the protagonist Amir (as a child, an adult and a narrator), is working out how to cue a key moment; Giles Croft, the theatre's artistic director, is orchestrating from the stalls.
I attend the first two nights and watching the audience is a telling experience. An older couple emerge looking a little shell-shocked, while two young Muslim girls join the queue to buy souvenir programmes. On both nights, the show receives a standing ovation. The Telegraph's Dominic Cavendish, who has criticised Nottingham Playhouse's "lacklustre regime", writes that "Croft has a hit on his hands that deserves to travel the country beyond its scheduled stops of Brighton and Liverpool." The Guardian's Lyn Gardner, meanwhile, writes that "it hurts to watch" – in a good way.
The book has been adapted by 44-year-old San Franciscan Matthew Spangler, who teaches performance studies at San Jose State University. For him, its potential was immediately obvious. "As soon as I read it, in 2005, I got in touch with [Hosseini] to see if it was a possibility," he says. He spent two years researching Afghanistan and filleting the book, spending evenings chatting to Hosseini's father-in-law on his porch, filling in the everyday details of Afghan life. "The deal was that there wouldn't be any theatre until after the film and the DVD were released," he explained. But none of this seems to have dented its popularity; the current UK tour is the ninth production of his adaptation. (It is also the first not to use a child actor to play the young Amir, meaning the adult actor has to be on stage the whole time.)
The UK cast of 10 are remarkably strong, including tabla player Hanif Khan, and carry the weight of hefty material: rape, war, exile, death, love and redemption. Hosseini's book pulls at the heartstrings as Amir struggles with his father, fails to protect his friend, and faces death and a new beginning in the US. As the action moves from Kabul to the borders of Pakistan and across to San Francisco, detailed projections of Afghan streets, dusty Pakistani tower-blocks and the Golden Gate bridge unspool across the stage.
The pressure of the book's reputation is there, the actors admit. "I'm worried about people's expectations – Hassan is such a loved character," says Farshid Rokey, who plays him. His co-stars share different British ethnicities – Arab, Pakistani, Indian-Trinidadian, Iranian – but Rokey is the only Afghan, having spent the first seven years of his life there. "When I read this, I cried my eyes out," he says of the book. There is a scene that echoes an experience of his own: Amir and his father escape Kabul in a cramped truck filled with refugees, facing the risk of being caught and killed. "It's messed up, that scene. We [Rokey, his mother and brother] did that whole journey from Kabul to Pakistan. My older brother had to stay in Pakistan until my mum could afford to get him over." But, he adds, "I'm one of the lucky ones. I don't want anyone to feel sorry for me."
He now lives in London with his mother, a cleaner. He was kicked out of school for what he calls "being a bit bad", and dropped in to a drama club four years ago, because his friend told him "there were loads of girls". He has since starred in last year's Manchester Royal Exchange hit, Mogadishu, and there have been several TV projects, including an HBO pilot with Christopher Guest. "I can only take 5% of the credit – I'm just lucky to have people who believe in me," he says. "Acting disciplined me. I went back and did my A-levels. I'm in my second year at uni now."
Hosseini is unsurprised when I tell him on the phone about Rokey's connection with the book. "Being uprooted, [that] loss of homeland, has sadly become a staple of the modern-day Afghan experience. Everyone has a story to tell. I hope, one day, we have happier stories to pass on." Afghanistan now has more refugees around the world than any other country: three million Afghans have been displaced since 2002, according to the UN's High Commission for Refugees. The majority, almost 1.8 million, live in Pakistan; 56,000 live in the UK.
Hosseini won't catch this production, unless it comes to London later in the year; he is on a US book tour. But he hopes it reaches a large audience. "I always wanted this story to show how universal certain experiences are – shame, regret, love, envy, honour, forgiveness," he says. "I wanted to make Afghanistan a more real place rather than just a remote, war-afflicted nation."
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