Theatre review: Selling Kabul, Red Stitch Actors’ Theatre

Sylvia Khoury's 'Selling Kabul' is a play that helps us remember why the caged bird sings.

Sylvia Khoury’s Selling Kabul is a brave play. It is set in Afghanistan in 2013, during the period when the US has begun to withdraw its troops, but before the Taliban has re-assumed power.

The protagonist is Taroon (Khisraw Jones-Shukoor), who worked with the Americans and is now in hiding at his sister Afiya’s house, but is determined to break out to see his newborn son.

What he doesn’t know is that his family were visited at the hospital by a member of the Taliban, and his choice will be less about freedom and hiding, and more about danger and survival.

The Pulitzer-shortlisted play is sensitive to what we imagine when we think about Afghanistan. The country may be a chessboard for the successive geopolitical struggles of imperial regimes from Russia to the US, but with her evocative portrait of one community, Khoury shows that even stories about imperial ambition are, at heart, family stories. In fact, the most compelling relationship in the play is the friendship between Taroon’s sister, Afiya, and a local woman, played by Claudia Greenstone, who has just had a child.

Feminist critics have long been calling for plays with more compelling roles for women, and Selling Kabul triumphs in this respect. Its plot is the opposite of typical war stories of heroism, betrayal and redemption. Instead, it is a domestic drama that speaks beautifully of rupture and repair in a time of conflict, of the solace of friends during periods of political turbulence, and the unremarkable heroism of protecting the people you love.

Nicole Nabout anchors the performance as Afiya and, along with Farhad Zaiwala playing her husband, shows how a personal life of great tenderness can take place in any context.

Jones-Shukoor is moving as an idealist emerging from the primrose boughs of youth to contest the thorny dilemmas of growing up and family responsibilities. His role as the ‘freedom fighter’ is perhaps more circumscribed than the other roles in the play, but Jones-Shukoor delivers an energy and determination that helps drive the production.

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The direction by Brett Cousins, who also directed Red Stitch’s smash hit Ulster American, makes the most of a play that takes its audience – as well as its creative team – on a journey of empathy.

Since the return to Taliban rule, women’s rights and support for the arts have once again run into challenges, but the people of Afghanistan resist by breeding songbirds to circumvent the ban on music. Selling Kabul is a play that helps us remember why the caged bird sings, and also reminds us that one reason to do so is to give hope to one’s family.

Selling Kabul
Writer: Sylvia Khoury
Director: Brett Cousins
Set/Costume Design: Sophie Woodward
Lighting Design: Richard Vabre
Sound Design: Grace Ferguson
Equity and Inclusion Support Officer: Cessalee Stovall
Stage Manager: Kelly Wilson
Assistant Stage Manager: Jenny Le
Cast: Claudia Greenstone, Khisraw Jones-Shukoor, Nicole Nabout and Farhad Zaiwala

Red Stitch Actors’ Theatre, St Kilda East
Until 21 May 2023
Tickets: $20 $69

Vanessa Francesca is a writer who has worked in independent theatre. Her work has appeared in The Age, The Australian and Meanjin