‘The Invisible Hand’ of the market is a metaphor conceived by economist Adam Smith in 1759, to highlight the unintended social benefits brought about by individuals acting in their own economic self-interest. Ayad Akhtar’s play distorts our understanding of this ‘hand’, identifying instead with the image’s more sinister undertones in order to tell a parable about the terrors of unrestrained capitalism.
Protagonist Nick Bright (Daniel Lapaine) is an American banker in Pakistan — “a heartless greedy bastard”, there to “take and plunder our nation” — who has been kidnapped by a local Islamic fundamentalist Group. At first, their brutal methods make them seem akin to an Islamic State-like group; however, as we get to know their leader Imam Saleem (Tony Jayawardena) and his protege Bashir (Scott Karim), it becomes clear that this is a smaller outfit than the terrorist outlets we are used to hearing about, and they have a genuine desire towards local social improvement.
When requests for ransom are refused on terrorism grounds, Nick has a cunning plan. He harnesses $3m from a personal account in Grand Cayman (another nod to the corrupt trappings of late capitalism) and begins shorting the Pakistani stock exchange, in order to generate enough money to secure his release.
At first, the plot plays out like a revenge drama for the formerly oppressed. Nick re-directs the discriminatory market forces that have been unleashed by a combination of colonialism and post-war neoliberalism to actually benefit, rather than exploit, ordinary people in a developing country. While Nick is only concerned about his personal injustice, kept from his wife and baby son, the Imam spends money on vaccines for the community — a utilitarian benefit that Nick cannot comprehend.
But soon, the creeping, intoxicating greed that has made America such a malignant influence in the eyes of Nick’s captors begins to cloud their own eyes. “You have to stay calm”, Nick warns, “making money can get intoxicating”. The greed that so disgusted the Imam about Nick corrupts those around them, and it is the invisible hand — not Nick the individual nor his nationality — that is the true enemy. Akhtar’s radical message is therefore that nobody in any part of the world is inherently good or evil — corruption is simply an intensely human thing, that will latch onto anyone in the right circumstances.
The play becomes a gripping combination of psychological thriller, interpersonal drama, and economic lesson. All the action takes place in Nick’s bare-brick prison cell. This, and a quick and witty script, ensures beliveable characterisations and watertight chemistry. “Pigs get slaughtered”, Nick warns Bashir over the perils of taking too greater a risk. “Not in Pakistan they don’t”, his captor replies.
Dealing with such far-reaching and emotive themes, it would be easy for the story to become overly ideological. But the nuance Akhtar manages to sustain in his script is instead remarkable. So much so we feel intense sympathy for Nick but also for his captors, and we’re in rapture at the power of capitalism but also disgusted at its terrifying impacts.
The Invisible Hand is a play that relishes in its own complexity and ambiguity, leaves one feeling in equal parts satisfied, enlightened, and challenged. An engaging storyline and perfectly-cast company keep you guessing about its conclusion right up until its shocking and calamitous end.
The Invisible Hand is playing at the Kiln Theatre until 31st July 2021. For more information, see The Kiln Theatre online.