This review is from 2016. ‘The Invisible Hand’ is revived, partially recast, for 2021.
Imagine a Wall Street trading desk transplanted to a terrorist bunker in Pakistan. That’s the mordantly funny set-up for Pulitzer Prize-winner Ayad Akhtar’s new play, for which the Tricycle has scooped the UK premiere. An American investment banker has been captured by Islamic fundamentalists. They want $10million for his freedom, but the US government won’t negotiate. So, in his sweat-smirched shirt sleeves, Nick Bright makes a deal: he’ll raise his own ransom by playing the stock market from his cell.
Cue a mentoring alliance even more unlikely than Walter White teaching Jesse Pinkman to cook meth. Bright (Daniel Lapaine) isn’t allowed near a computer. So he tutors his young captor Bashir (Parth Thakerar) in the dark arts of commodity futures trading. Handily for those whose economics education began and ended with ‘Enron’, this includes a sub-lesson in the play’s title: ‘the invisible hand’ is the theory that the market is guided and stabilised by the corrective interaction of everyone’s private self-interest. Go ahead, read that again.
Bashir is an English Pakistani Muslim who’s given up a ‘soft’ life in Hounslow to ‘fight for something meaningful’. But his violent disdain for Western capitalist imperialism begins to blunt as he discovers the addictive power of dealing. ‘Bulls make money, bears make money, pigs get slaughtered’, warns Bright, quoting a Wall Street maxim about controlling greed. ‘Not in Pakistan, mate’ replies Bashir.
An early reference to beheaded journalist Daniel Pearl keeps the play’s sour humour in check. Bright’s three captors shift between ideology and self-interest, intelligent debate and aggressive force, suggesting Pakistan’s volatility in microcosm. But Bright’s fate is less compelling than his financial connivings. ‘The Invisible Hand’ is a loveless play, and word-heavy. Aside from the blinding light and deafening screeching that accompanies each scene switch, there’s nothing about Tricycle artistic director Indhu Rubasingham’s production that demands you shouldn’t just read the script.
As in 2012’s celebrated ‘Disgraced’, Pakistani American playwright Akhtar continues to worry at the tangle of relations between Islam and the West. But the questions are cruder here: who should we fear more, terrorists or bankers? What poses the biggest threat to civilization, blind faith in religion or in the free market? The answer, in a predictable and OTT twist, is an unstable compound of both.