‘A Thousand Splendid Suns’ Explores Female Relationships at The Old Globe
We chat with playwright Ursula Rani Sarma about the challenges of bringing Khaled Hosseini's novel to the stage
Ursula Rani Sarma | Photo: Helen Warner
When translating a best seller to the stage, how do you begin?
I have done quite a bit of adaptation. My process is that I read the book seven or eight times, and then I put it away. Then I sit down and start to write. Whatever my dramatist’s brain has retained in terms of sculpting this story, that becomes the real spine of the play. I try not to return to the book in that first draft if I can, because I’m trusting I have absorbed all of the material, that I have absorbed the characters and the world.
What about this book lends itself to the stage?
The theater excels at interpersonal relationships. At the heart of this book was the relationship between these women and ultimately their relationship with their shared husband. Also, quite a lot of the story takes place within a house, which in itself is quite theatrical—people in a confined environment who have to rub up against each other for the best and for the worst. We watch that, we observe that human behavior, those moments of great vulnerability, great violence, great joy, great sadness. The theater is the perfect medium for those types of stories.
Did Khaled Hosseini have any input on the script?
I spoke with Khaled quite early in the process. It was a meeting of minds. He was really keen that I explore the full potential of theatricality for it. He was less interested in seeing a literal, loyal adaptation where an audience was led through the book from beginning to end. There is so much text in a novel and a limited amount of time onstage. If you try and bring across every element of a novel, you’ll just fall into “and then,” “and then,” “and then,” because you’re trying to race through every element of it.
This play comes at a time when women everywhere are really starting to find their voices. Does that make it even more relevant for a contemporary audience?
Absolutely. There’s a real appetite now for plays and films with strong women at their core. When we were in rehearsals, we asked each other, “How many plays can you think about that really explore female relationships?” It was a struggle to come up with other examples. We realized quite quickly that we were doing something extraordinary.
And the creative team is mostly women, including director Carey Perloff?
I can’t imagine having it any other way. There was something about that shared experience of what it is to be a woman in the world right now. Both Carey and I are mothers, for example. We had that context of having carried a child, of having mothered. Motherhood and what it is to feel that maternal instinct over another person are so important in the play. I felt very fortunate that I could draw on those experiences myself. It also felt quite special to be in a room with not only women, but women from a variety of ethnic backgrounds. There was so much cultural history in that room, and I think that shows in the production.
It does feel very timely. How does the play explore the female experience?
It is about women standing up for themselves within incredibly difficult circumstances and a very oppressive political landscape, but also oppressive intimate relationships. This is such a good story to tell now. Overcoming oppression, despite the odds—that is the true heroism of women. They will always survive and do anything to protect their children. The succession of events is incredibly heartbreaking, but they still manage to find joy and love, and that is one of the most inspiring things for me about the strong women at the core of this play. And certainly, it’s not just in the US; there’s a strong movement in Ireland at the moment. It’s in the UK. All around the world, women are finally standing up and realizing they can vocalize experiences that were inherently wrong, but they never before felt they could.
Even though the book was published in 2008, it’s still relevant to the ongoing turmoil in the Middle East.
It goes on and on and forevermore. Women will just endure. It’s so amazing, these images that you see of these refugee camps. These Syrian people fleeing their homes. It’s women with babies in their arms, and these incredibly strong images of mothers, which is again one of the core themes of the play, as well as friendship. This idea that you can become a mother by physically having a child, but you can also become a mother by adopting vulnerable people and friends whom you feel that strong compulsion to take care of, to protect.
What do you want audiences to take away after seeing the show?
I would like people to have a slice of another type of existence and connect with that. Despite the fact that this is set in Afghanistan, I would like them to be moved by the journey that these women go on. Because the book itself is so moving, as a playwright that’s where I most felt the burden of responsibility—that the play would connect with people on an emotional level, that they would be inspired and moved by the resilience of these women, by their friendship, by how they overcome the oppression around them. I’m always interested in an audience engaging emotionally and intellectually. To do both of those things in a piece of theater, I feel I have done my job quite well.
The Old Globe
May 12–June 17