This true story, which opens under Taliban rule in the city of Herat in 2000, has gained urgent resonance since the fall of Kabul this summer. The play’s premiere came as British officials travelled to Afghanistan to meet Taliban leaders with the agenda including women’s rights.
“You want your children growing up in a country run by thugs?” asks Fariba (Géhane Strehler) when she gives a speech in a school playground. Fariba has three sons but feels a sense of duty to the neighbourhood’s daughters and their right to education, employment and independence. Her tirade reaches the Taliban and Fariba, her husband Mohammed (Dana Haqjoo) and their boys must flee for safety, choosing the UK as their destination as the eldest son Hussein (Ahmad Sakhi) has a life-threatening heart condition and needs treatment.
The story written by the other two brothers, Hamed and Hessam (played by Farshid Rokey and Shamail Ali), adapted for the stage by Phil Porter, is split between two nerve-racking journeys. The first, via snowy Moscow and refugee camps in Europe, is to arrive in England as refugees. (How did these extraordinarily dangerous conditions, from cramped containers to deals with shady “handlers”, ever become so familiar to us?) The second path they take is through the healthcare system. On both journeys they rely on the kindness of strangers, but we also see how encountering so much cruelty en route to England leaves Hamed mistrustful of others.
Amit Sharma’s inventive production for Wales Millennium Centre has clarity and immediacy. At the heart of Hayley Grindle’s design is a raised semi-circle stage that glows from underneath and switches from the warm sofra where the family eat to the anonymous, cold locations through which they pass. The play keenly explores how a sense of home can be quickly lost but also re-established in precarious circumstances. Clothes hang from the rafters of WMC’s studio space and half-unpacked cases surround the stage, with the multi-role actors picking up and discarding jackets for different characterisations. The cast of five are so close-knit as the family that it feels shocking when one of them breaks off to play an antagonist.
A rapport with the audience is swiftly established as the five flog their belongings to the front row before they leave Herat. There is plenty of brotherly banter, with an ear for the hollowness of laughter amid fear. The superb Afghan singer Elaha Soroor, who co-composed the show with Tic Ashfield, drifts on and off the stage, observing alongside us but also lending her haunting voice to accompany Hussein’s breathing difficulties. These sequences, with movement direction by Jess Williams, are initially striking – Soroor becoming another kind stranger he encounters – but the device begins to feel strained.
Hayley Egan’s video design combines well with Grindle’s set, which has captions creatively embedded. A rich range of typography is used to signal the methods of transportation the family takes: their names are all squeezed inside a car boot and we see the word “aeroplane” take off along a runway. When the stage is filled with projections listing possible diagnoses for Hussein, we sense the family’s rising fear. The second half of the play is less successful, partly because too often the actors step out of the story to narrate it. But the message of love and hope is winningly delivered – you can see why Hamed Amiri became a motivational speaker – and this is a show that deserves as wide an audience as possible, from schoolchildren to politicians.
The Boy With Two Hearts is at Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff, until 23 October.