Tuesday, 30 April 2013

The Kite Runner, at Nottingham Playhouse

Whenever I can help it, I'll always read the book before I see the film, play or anything else.  I haven't read the Kite Runner, so I'm in no position to comment about how faithful an adaptation this play was or how it handled the time travel in comparison.  This makes a refreshing change for me, to experience a narrative for the first time in non-book format.

The story is narrated by Amir, now living in America, who takes us back to his childhood in a wealthy area of Kabul.  He talks about his close relationship with Hassan, his servant, who is socially inferior to Amir not just because he is a servant, but because he is a different type of Muslim.  The boys are raised almost as brothers, like both their fathers were a generation earlier.  It's easy to see from the very beginning how their social status has affected their relationship and their attitude to eachother, and there are clues there that show a streak in Amir that is often playful but sometimes cruel.

As Amir drops in and out of his narrative, whisking the story from 1970s Kabul to 1980s San Francisco to 2000s Kabul, we witness a whirlwind of human experiences.  Friendship, brotherhood, betrayal, cowardice, guilt through to redemption and to what might develop into hope.  We see the Kite Running competition that looked like it could repair his relationship with his father and the horrific event that followed it.  Loyalties are unquestioningly proven and lives and relationships are altered forever in an afternoon.  We also get a sense of how Afghanistan as a country has been changed and eroded under the rule of various invaders, a history that I'm not sure many people in England and Europe would be familair with.  For a troubled country that is in the news an awful lot, we as an audience know painfully little about it's history or culture.


I'm always amazed at how companies like the Playhouse manage to create such a strong atmosphere using such sparse stage materials.  Curtains, several movable podiums, a plain rug and a gently sloping half-pipe-shaped piece of tiled ground is all that was needed to create three seperate cities and all the scenes that took place in them- beaches, bazzars, rooms of houses and bus stations.  The projected lights were amazing, helping to colour in the scenes and to create and shift moods in a second.  I don't know what technical wizardry was happening inside that cityscape cutout, but it was so effective.  The Afghan drummer too was so so integral at establishing and maintainging the feeling of the Middle East too.  To play constantly for abour 15 minues before the show and throughout the entire thing is a bit of a feat of stamina really...


An expertly balanced play, a few excellently delivered comedic moments to balance out the grimness and the suffering that is so embedded into the story.  Brilliant performances from the cast, as always and a story that is both tragically depressing and beautiful at the same time.

The Kite Runner is showing at Nottingham Playhouse (Its European Premier) until the 18 May. It will then be at the Brighton Festival 21-25 May before moving to Liverpool Playhouse 12 June - 6 July, the play's co-producer.

Monday, 29 April 2013

The Weight of Water, by Sarah Crossan

Continuing with the Carnegie Shortlist for 2013...

Flicking thorough these books when they first arrived, I thought how much the layout of this book put me off.  It looks like a collection of poems, not your usual left to right blocks of text.

Having now read it, I can see how the form makes sense for the story.  Cassie has moved to Coventry from Poland with her mother.  Their only reason is looking for Tata, Cassie's step-dad, who disappeared to England and left them alone. 

Cassie speaks in the first person about how much of a struggle it is to be an alien in a new country, to live in a single room and to be the new kid at school.  She has to try and prove that being Polish does not make her stupid and to attempt to blend in at her new school, avoiding the pack of back-stabbing girls, constantly seeking each other's approval and desperately trying to be popular with their ringleader.  Her mother stalks the streets of Coventry every day looking for Tata and becoming more and more withdrawn and depressed.  All Cassie wants is a friend and to be able to join the school Swimming Team.

Returning to the form then.  The poetic structure makes sense to me now.  A poet chooses their words carefully in order to create the effect that they want.  Somebody speaking a second language must choose their words carefully too, out of accuracy.  In addition, Cassie is a poetic character, she constructs beautiful sentences, notes and letters- some of which she shares with their recipient, some are kept between narrator and reader.  I found that I really cared about Cassie, she's simply a nicer person than the girls in her school and proves that time and time again.

A very quick, well written book that suggests that the individual will always stand out amongst a crowd and that being yourself will always make you happy.  I can see why this title made the shortlist: it's accessible, it's full of real characters and it's relevant to the lives of a lot of girls.  Even if someone has never moved to another country, it's possible that they've felt victimised or isolated and have struggled to overcome something new and scary.  Personally I don't think we have a winner here, medal wise, but we do have an excellent book that I shall be recommending to struggling readers.

Monday, 22 April 2013

Midwinterblood, by Marcus Sedgwick

The more Carnegie books I read, the harder it gets to pick a winner.  I don't want to sound too Bruce Forsythe, but every one is my favourite.  Midwinterblood is a Gothic love story, but not in the style to which we've become accustomed.  That tag line on the cover, by the way is terrible.  Don't let it put you off.

We start in the not too distant future (the 2070s), and a journalist looking for the secrets of the Dragon Orchid travels to a remote island so far into the Scottish North that the sun rarely sets.  Everybody knows each other.  There are no cars and no mobile devices.  No children.  It's eerie and mysterious, not unlike the Wickerman in the way that the island itself, not just its inhabitants are unsettling for reasons that it's hard to describe.  On Blessed island, Erik meets Merle and has the distinct feeling that they've met before, there's a deep connection that they both feel.  Each chapter jumps backwards to another time and another story.  A modern archaeological dig, World War II, the turn of the 20th Century, the Victorian era, Viking times and pre-history.  Each story depends on and is framed by the last, and each one ties Erik and Merle together in tighter and tighter knots.  I love how mysteries uncovered in 2011 are solved a few chapters later, 1200 years earlier.  The reverse chronology and the way that all the pieces fall into place is what holds the narrative together so beautifully.

Through the various recurrences of Erik and Merle, the author forces us to think about the nature of love and loss, eternity and sacrifice.  Their relationships might be vastly different with each life, but with each turn on Earth, they affect the life of the other in profound and sometimes unlikely ways.  Sedgwick manages to make the concept of eternal love seem powerfully tragic, without being sentimental.  He looks at literal eternal life (the Dragon Orchid has restorative and preserving qualities) and spiritual eternal life.

I loved the gothic element of this book.  Not just in your usual vampire way, which I suppose is what gothic has come to mean, but in the tone and the atmosphere of the island and the romantic, sensational behaviour of the people that inhabit it over the millennia.  I loved the menace that hung over certain parts of the story, the idea of souls searching for eachother over centuries and the blood sacrifice theme that runs throughout.  The victorian chapter in particular reminded me very much of The Turn of the Screw, with the framing device, the use of mournful ghosts and the element of forbidden love that unfolds itself throughout that story within the story.  Gave me shivers.

In conclusion, a beautifully written and very unusual book.  Enormously ambitious, but successful in what it attempts to do.  It really makes the reader feel like some sort of historical detective, assembling the pieces of a story that spans thousands of years in order to understand that which is impossible.  Love love loved it.

I really can't believe the quality of some of the YA fiction released in the last couple of years.
Midvinterblot by the Swedish painter Carl Larsson

Diary of a Wimpy Kid, by Jeff Kinney

Chances are, if you have any contact with kids who read, they have read Diary of a Wimpy Kid.  Any school librarian in the English speaking world will handle this bad-boy a lot, but shelve it very rarely.  It doesn't even touch the shelf at my school.  I actually got the chance to sneakily read it during the Easter holidays to see what all the fuss is about.

Firstly, I can see why it's appealing to the 11-15 age group.  Greg, wimpy diarist extrordinnaire, is incredibly funny and perfectly captures what it's like to be a put-upon kid in the modern age.  Despite being set in America, his plight is pretty universal.  Middle child, middle grades, middling friends.  His older brother bullies him, his little brother is the apple of his parents' eyes.  Greg just wants to get through school in one piece so that he can go on to adult life and become famous.  So far we don't know what for, but Greg assures us that that's the reason that he's writing this diary, for historical posterity.

It's the averageness of Greg that makes him so universally appealing- he aimlessly drifts through school being a nobody.  He doesn't ask to be top of the class, athletically remarkable or to be popular (well, not super popular anyway, he's still top 100).  What he is is funny.  I'm willing to bet I'm at least twice the target age of this book, but it still made me laugh like a lunatic.  I went to school too.  The 'cheese touch' lurgy was something that was particularly well written and had the hallmarks of a proper school experience.  There's a lurgy, of some form or another, in every school in the world.  I'm pretty sure of that.  His reference to weekend his lay-ins also made me snort- Greg doesn't want to get up on a Saturday, it's merely the foul taste of his own breath that makes him get out of bed.

The cartoons that feature on every page are funny, accurate and tell much of the story.  They also flesh out characters in a way that is not reliant on text.  It's not a comic, it's not a graphic novel, but it's a heavily illustrated book, which partially explains why even the struggling readers can get on fine with DOAWK.  Girls and boys both love this series, so Greg's universal appeal goes beyond gender too.  It really is written for anyone who is/was/knows a kid. 

Very much recommended to the old and the young, provided you can ever get you hands on a copy.