REVIEW: Selling Kabul by Sylvia Khoury – Red Stitch

In an apartment in the middle of Kabul, Taroon watches television, as he tries to get the modem working so he can check on the progress of his VISA to move to the United States. He worked as an interpreter for the US military and while they prepare for withdrawal, he must hide in his sister’s home, waiting for his wife to give birth to their first child.

The Taliban forces don’t think much of US collaborators, so it’s dangerous for Taroon to be in the city still. And staying with his sister, Afiya, and her husband, Jawid, puts them in danger, too. He shouldn’t be watching television. He should keep his voice down. And Afiya is worried when he gets too close to the window, even with the curtains closed.

When Afiya’s friend and neighbour Leyla arrives, Taroon must hide and stay silent, so he doesn’t drag Leyla into their life-threatening family drama. But while Leyla has her own family to worry about, perhaps she knows more than she’s letting on – to keep herself, her husband and her own young child safe.

Sylvia Khoury’s play, Selling Kabul, was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2022 and it strives to say a lot about the politics of family and the failure of the US invasion of Afghanistan, all in one night, in one small apartment in the country’s capital. 

Red Stitch’s production, directed by Brett Cousins, is firmly grounded in realism, for better and worse. He wants us to know this is a real story, even if it’s not an actual true story. The production wants us to be in that apartment, watching the television, seeing headlights randomly illuminating the drawn curtains, turning on running water, making tea and coffee, sewing and eating and switching on a pedestal fan to relieve the characters of the oppressive heat.

And for a while, I do feel trapped there with Taroon and Afiya and Jawid and Leyla as the tension rises and the drama threatens to spill over the sides or out the front door, drawing attention to these characters and putting their lives in jeopardy.

Unfortunately, on opening night, things were a little rough around the edges. Actors stumbled over their lines, the drama edged close to melodrama and the front door – the vital barrier against the world outside – kept popping open. The cast tried their best to make sure it stayed closed, but along with all the other business they were doing in an effort to fashion realism – the sewing, the pouring of drinks, switching the fans on and off – it kept the people from feeling real.

Tonally, the production rarely mixes it up – it’s all earnest and the moments of humour come off as forced. The characters are there under the same bright lights for almost the whole show, a truly unforgiving static tableau that flattens the drama.

Maybe the ensemble were struck by opening-night nerves and I know these actors can be strong (Nicole Nabout was the stand-out of the cast), but while there were individual moments that shone, I didn’t always buy the relationships, which was a problem. A brother and sister that were unconvincing. A friendship between women that didn’t feel close at all. As a result, when the twists and turns came in the story, the more and more I felt at a remove.

At the heart of the play is a touching story about people trying to survive under an oppressive regime, who say they are looking out for each other, but need to keep an eye on themselves, too. It’s also a story about the next generation and keeping them safe and giving them hope. All these elements drew me closer and closer to being moved by their plight, but the production problems held me back from having a satisfying night at the theatre.

The play runs for a month. I hope they can find a way to keep that door closed and for the actors to settle into a groove with these people, telling a story that is essential for us to hear.

- Keith Gow, Theatre First

Selling Kabul is on at Red Stitch Actors' Theatre until May 21st.

Photograph: Jodie Hutchinson