THE INVISIBLE HAND
by Ayad Akhtar
Directed by Indhu Rubasingham
Kiln Theatre – until 31 July
It may only have four actors on a single set, but Ayad Akhtar’s engrossing, explosive piece feels very much A Big Play. A New York-based Pulitzer Prize winner with Pakistani heritage, Akhtar would seem better qualified than most writers to explore simultaneously the corrosive effect of American influence on less affluent countries, the dangers of extremism, and the damage corporate greed can inflict. That he has done so in a fiery, gripping script peppered with nuggets of jet black humour and some moments of genuine shock, is cause for real celebration. It’s not hard to see why this was one of the hottest tickets in town during its first run at the Kiln’s previous incarnation, the Tricycle, back in 2016.
Set entirely in a dingy, bunker-like cell in Pakistan where affluent Citibank trader Nick is held captive by a forceful but disorganised bunch of militants (they thought they were kidnapping his boss) who force him to work out his incarceration by stock market trading for them to the tune of the $10 million they are asking for his ransom. It soon becomes clear that nobody’s motives are entirely pure -within the militia group, personal financial gain locks metaphorical horns with the desire to better the lot of the community, while Nick isn’t without his flaws- and Indhu Rubasingham’s terrific production plays out as a sort of cross between an unusually engaging think piece and a balls-to-the-wall political thriller.
The acting is magnificent ….and occasionally surprising. When Scott Karim initially swaggered on as mouthy, London escapee, and Nick’s most violent captor Bashir, I admired his energy but thought we were about to be treated to a somewhat one-note performance. Not so: Karim finds the pain and a number of tics and inadequacies beneath the bravado, and ends up turning in a compelling portrait of toxic masculinity at odds with a genuine desire to do good. He is also very very funny.
Similarly, Sid Sagar as the most initially sympathetic captor, also the one at the lower end of the food chain, brilliantly suggests a spark of resistance and independent thinking, that is progressively extinguished as the story progresses. Always a powerful stage presence, Tony Jayawardena utterly convinces as an urbane, impeccably mannered Imam capable of sudden moments of molten fury and unsettling cruelty. Daniel Lapaine’s visual and spiritual disintegration as the increasingly desperate Nick is so superbly done it becomes painful to watch.
The technical elements in the production, but especially Oliver Fenwick’s toxic, jaundiced lighting and Alex Caplen’s unsettling sound design of drones thrumming overhead just before another horrifying explosion, help immeasurably in ratcheting up the tension. Rubasingham’s slick but spiky, beautifully modulated staging ends on a note that is at once terrifying and ambiguous, also potentially slightly different from that of the published script, and I would love to discuss it further but that would involve spoilers. So, you should just go and see it for yourself.
Akhtar actually won his Pulitzer for his 2014 piece Disgraced, which was one of the Bush’s first plays in their forever home, but The Invisible Hand is every bit as good: fascinating and fiercely intelligent. It stays with you long after the final firecracker moments, and you’ll be discussing it all the way home.