Ayad Akhtar’s thriller The Invisible Hand puts Adam Smith’s argument for laissez-faire economics to the test. Somewhere outside Karachi, Pakistan, American Citibank exec Nick Bright (Daniel Lapaine) is being held hostage by religious militants led by Imam Saleem (Tony Jayawardena). His capture initially a mistake, but Nick convinces Imam Saleem and his faithful follower Bashir (Scott Karim) that he is more valuable alive than he is dead. He bargains for his freedom on the basis that his market expertise can make them money. And so, with the hot-headed, Harrow-born Bashir as his odd bedfellow, they begin to invest and trade in the Pakistani economy.
Originally nominated for an Olivier in 2017, this revived production is masterfully directed by Indhu Rubasingham. Short, episodic scenes in the holding cell designed by Lizzie Clachan are interrupted by bright outward lights and drone noises. They evoke a sense of heightened surveillance and a looming threat from the outside.
The ensemble is clearly familiar with the material, with only Scott Karim newly cast for this revival. Lapaine’s banker Bright is calculating and stoic, giving off that sometimes misguided but always unwavering confidence found on Wall Street. It’s only in moments when he’s confronted by his American family at home that he breaks down. Jayawardena’s Imam Saleem too is deeply unnerving and nuanced: soft-spoken yet unforgiving. And Karim has no trouble joining this cast, convincingly towering over Lapaine, unpredictable in his gait and terrifying in his temper. He reveals Bashir’s softer sides too, his endless curiosity and enjoyment of learning. Rubasingham really succeeds in creating quite a precisely tuned piece that fully reveals each character’s pathos while maintaining a stiflingly intense atmosphere which complements Akhtar’s taut, clever writing.
Akhtar’s neatly crafted script satisfyingly twists and turns as the characters’ self-interests are sometimes aligned and sometimes pitted against each other. More fundamentally, Pulitzer winner Akhtar casts light on how the market does not treat self-interests equally; if there is indeed an invisible hand, it clearly caters to some more than others. In concept and in execution, Akhtar’s script is fastidiously constructed, the dialogue crisp, the callbacks nicely woven in, the action always centred on the four characters. But somewhat ironically, such scrupulous design renders visible another hand, the one of the playwright, who is busy methodically assessing plot points and character arcs. The effect is a distancing one, jolting us out of the world so intricately built. It’s almost even Brechtian, but doesn’t feel intentional, and jars in a play that otherwise never veers from naturalism.
But still, The Invisible Hand is an exhilarating piece of theatre. While it may not be entirely persuasive, it elucidates the pitfalls of an unwavering worship of capitalism, the parallels between militant Islamic groups and Wall Street that the West is unwilling to consider, and the people often made invisible by ‘the invisible hand’.
The Invisible Hand is on at Kiln Theatre until 31st July 2021. More info and tickets here.