Ayad Akhtar’s The Invisible Hand is that saddest of political dramas: one without any heroes, insight or real interest. But it makes you wonder why someone hasn’t written a play about Brexit.

000000IHand1A besser brick cell. Dusty. A rusty, obviously uncomfortable bed. A filthy mattress, flatter than most pancakes. A couple of old chairs. A bare table. The smell of fear. The prickly overcoat of heat.

A prison. A cell. A desert.

Rural Pakistan. The shadow of Osama Bin Laden hangs heavy. An American banker has been captured by a rebel group led by Imam Saleem, held for ransom. His captors want $US10 million for his release. He knows he can’t raise that so he offers a bargain.

He is the worst kind of banker – a speculative investment banker; the kind who believe that the market is God and that anything is acceptable in the pursuit of profits. He knows about Puts, Options, Calls, the Invisible Hand and the Bretton Woods initiative. He bargains his skill for his liberty – he will trade on the Stock Exchange and earn his ransom.

His arrogance is profound. So is his naivety. Even when he is threatened with death, and believes he is going to die, even then he still thinks that his captors might value him, might make deals with him. In that respect, he is an idiot.

He is a prime example of cultural superiority of the USA kind. He never contemplates that the locals he deals with will really understand what he is doing and he doesn’t, even for a second, think that his garrulous gabbling will seed ideas in them which might take root and cause…issues.

000000IHand3One thing is for sure: Ayad Akhtar’s The Invisible Hand is never going to/shouldn’t win any Olivier Awards. Disgraced, by the same author, won the Pulitzer Prize in 2013. The fact that The Invisible Hand has not had a run on Broadway or even a long run Off-Broadway (there was a short run at the New York Theatre Workshop in 2014) really ought to have been a clue for Indhu Rubasingham, Artistic Director of the Tricycle Theatre, that this was not the best of plays. (An Outer Critics Circle Award and an Obie notwithstanding, this is just not a particularly good play.)

Early exchanges reveal precisely where this “drama” will go and, as the plot unfolds over two hours (including interval), there is little by the way of suspense or even interest. Dull characters do dull things. Even the faux tension when the captured banker faces a bullet to the head does not work – it comes too early in the play and, as is clear to the audience, there is nothing of interest to be revealed if the banker dies.

There is some interest in exploring the machinations of the market and the way inside information is used to build profits, but it is insufficient to sustain this narrative.

If boredom and predictability were currency, then The Invisible Hand would be Fort Knox. But alas…

None of the characters are interesting. Nick, the banker, is the type who will do anything for himself, regardless of the cost to others. There is nothing noble about him, and after he makes money on the back of the assassination of a local figure, it is impossible to care about what happens to him.

The Pakistani characters fare little better. All of them are portrayed as people who will sell out their values for cash. One thinks that Money is the “opiate of the masses” – he might be right, but instead of being insightful or revelatory, developments are tawdry, frankly, and dispiritingly predictable.

000000IHand2What is the point of another play where the (evil?) capitalist American is shown for the vandal/tyrant he is? Of another play where the unenlightened are shown to be seduced by the lure of the excesses of capitalism? Of another play that suggests the uprising is coming and it will be violent and all-consuming? At least, what is the point of such narratives unless something new is involved or the writing is remarkable or the characters are extraordinary or the acting is phenomenal?

In the European premiere of The Invisible Hand, now playing at the Tricyle Theatre, Rubasingham does nothing to overcome the play’s inherent inadequacies. Lizzie Clachan’s set is functional (slightly amusing, actually, when Nick stages his version of The Great Escape) but Oliver Fenwick’s lighting leaves a real impression. A bad one. Why it is necessary to blind the audience with painfully piercing flood lights between scenes is incomprehensible.

Akhtar’s writing is not remarkable:

Bashir: Fuck you Nick. And fuck your wife. I hope some bloke is shagging her as we speak, you cunt.

Actually, not remarkable is an overstatement.

None of the characters are extraordinary – their type can be found in any Bond film or Marvel comic film. And there is nothing remarkable about the acting.

000000IHand5Daniel Lapaine tries his hardest, and, to be fair, does the best work. But the writing prohibits any sense of connection with or empathy for the character. His character, Nick the Citibank banker, is a terrible, narcissistic, and quite stupid person. He might be able to make money for his clients, but he is inept at life skills or the realities of the wider world. His cultural superiority costs lives. Many of them.

The Pakistani characters fare no better, each of them trapped in stereotypes and the trappings of predictability. One, Dar, easily seduced by the American Dream, suffers because of his affair with money and then hardens in opposition to freedom. Another, Imam Saleem, appears a religious and community leader, but succumbs to personal interest. The third, Bashir, is rat cunning and turns the skills of American enterprise into weapons of war. Ho hum.

Nothing Sid Sagar, Tony Jayawardena or Parth Thakerar do can make these characters sing. Nothing. Mind you, they don’t try that hard either, but perhaps that is a result of Rubasingham’s directorial intent. Irony might have been a tool readily employed here, but it wasn’t.

Ayad Akhtar’s The Invisible Hand is that saddest of political dramas: one without any heroes, insight or real interest. But it makes you wonder why someone hasn’t written a play about Brexit. It is hard to see that the world needs The Invisible Hand, as it does not really add anything to knowledge or insight, or challenge perspectives; nor does it provide a night in the theatre filled with tension or excitement.

No.

But the world does need plays which examine the current political landscape and current political thinking. This production of The Invisible Hand reminds one that few spaces are opened up on English stages for political works which challenge the status quo or the intent of the ruling classes.

Rubasingham would have been better to commission a new play about Brexit or Corbyn’s rise: those issues are more pertinent than anything contained in Akhtar’s play.

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The Invisible Hand
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Stephen Collins
With years of experience on both sides of the curtain, Stephen Collins has worked as an actor, singer, director, producer and casting consultant, indulging his passion for live theatre. Occasionally a media lawyer, who has worked in-house for the likes of Channel 4 and The Sunday Times, he can usually be found in an audience. In 2014 and 2015, he was lead critic for Britishtheatre.com. He thinks the West End and London is the centre of the theatrical universe (sorry Broadway!), but fears it's not possible to see absolutely everything that’s on there. He doesn’t stop trying though. Cocktails help when it all gets too much.