First a novel, then a film, now a play, Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist’s prolonged shelf life is proof that it is a story for our times. This first ever stage adaptation by Stephanie Street – one of three National Youth Theatre productions at the Finborough Theatre as the organisation celebrates its 60th birthday – turns the best-selling book into a compelling memory play. It crystallises Hamid’s tale of a young Pakistani’s infatuation and disenchantment with corporate America with style and slickness.
Akshay Sharan is Changez, a Princeton graduate born and raised in Pakistan. Narrating his own life-story, Sharan’s Changez takes the audience through his halcyon days of Ivy League soccer, his rapid progress up the greasy ladder of a soulless Manhattan valuation firm, and his gradual infatuation with Erica (Alice Harding), a kooky American writer who summers in the Hamptons and perpetually mourns her deceased high-school sweetheart.
But this is all preamble to the main event. On September 11, 2001, Changez is watching the World Trade Centre collapse from a swanky hotel room in the Philippines. Warily, he confesses to the audience that, as he stood watching CNN footage of the second plane smashing into the South Tower, he found himself smiling. And that is the beginning of the end. Changez’s enchantment with the West slowly disintegrates under a torrent of American Islamophobia and his own crippling journey of self-knowledge.
Director Prasanna Puwanarajah takes the concept of memory seriously. Startling changes in Guy Hoare’s lighting design rapidly shift the focus from a Lahore café in the present day, to crisp Autumn days at Princeton, to pulsing New York nightclubs in the late Nineties. Characters steal in and fade away like intrusions in a dream, conversing in a slightly exaggerated, almost hyper-real fashion, like half-forgotten ghosts from a distant past.
The Reluctant Fundamentalist has its problems, though. Street’s adaptation is particularly stealthy in its slow undermining of Changez’s high-flying city-slicker life, and pins down America’s callow post-9/11 xenophobia with elegance, but it fails to find depth in Changez and Erica’s relationship, despite a strong performance from Harding. There’s also a distinct sense that this is a story told for American ears; statements that might prove controversial stateside are welcomed with open arms by a liberal, left-leaning London audience.
But there is fine, promising work here. Sharan’s considered, conversational Changez is an engaging presence throughout, and Laurence Bown and Abubakar Khan provide strong performances as the two competing desires in Changez’s heart: his suave, sweet-talking New York boss and his earthy, eternally loving brother Hafez. Jennifer Walser also impresses as Changez’s intolerant co-worker, as does Reece Miller as a no-nonsense drone of a customs officer.
And, in a week when French police are forcing Muslim women to undress on crowded beaches, Hamid’s indictment of Islamophobia has never felt more topical. Changez’s story is one that unequivocally reveals the tensions and troubles that define contemporary global politics. Good on the National Youth Theatre for shouldering such a weighty responsibility.
The Reluctant Fundamentalist played the Finborough Theatre until 27 August 2016.
Image by Helen Murray