Forget the Wolf of Wall Street. In a concrete cell in rural Pakistan, Citibank employee Nick Bright is trading for his life. Taken hostage in error by a ragbag militant group, with the prospect of being sold to Lashkar-e-Jhangvi should no-one stump up $10 million, the Ivy League economist has persuaded his captors to let him play the markets to raise his own ransom.
It might be the most unlikely trading floor on the planet, a ratty single bed encased in breeze blocks. Unchained each morning, Nick (Daniel Lapaine) instructs his captor-turned-colleague Bashir (Parth Thakerar) – a hot-headed young runaway from Hounslow – in what to buy, sell and hold. Pretty soon, the funds start flowing, all converted from risky rupees into ever-stable dollars. However, as the militants come into money, self-interest kicks in. The local Imam Saleem (Tony Jayawardena) skims off a cut – every lost dollar undercutting Nick’s market clout – and Bashir finds something of a calling, encouraged for once, rather than excluded.
Ayad Akhtar, whose Pulitzer Prize winner Disgraced was a hit the Bush, manages not only to connect the two most volatile forces in today’s world – marketism and Islamism – but to condense them into a cramped five-by-five cell. His argument is that anti-American hostility grows out of global inequality and envy, but that human nature would dictate the same disparities were the power dynamic reversed. Far from being a stabilising force, as Adam Smith’s invisible hand theory sets out, self-interest leads only to turbulence.
At one level, it’s a dark office comedy; one in which even the tea run can turn deadly. Those stakes make it a proper political thriller, wound tight as a tripwire in Indhu Rubasingham‘s palpitating production. Akhtar offers an engrossing economics lesson, as Nick lays out the basics of short trading, stabilised currencies and money laundering, but he integrates it into a twisting plot that’s shot through with suspense.
By slamming two genres together, The Invisible Hand combines the giddy highs of a high-stakes poker game with the horrors of a hostage situation. Big wins and bigger losses pull in opposite directions. At the same time, Akhtar stresses the economics of captivity, as Nick haggles and barters with his captors, acutely aware of his own value and the need to negotiate.
At heart, it’s a warning against the abstraction of finance – cash as an end in itself. While Imam Saleem warns that money, not religion, is the opiate of the people, and Akhtar shows quite how addictive trading can be. Thakerar’s unregulated Bashir finds himself hooked, while Lapaine suggests that finance needs level-headed detachment – a lack of emotion that, so often, leads to a lack of empathy. This is a play that proves, for definite, that markets aren’t self-contained entities.
If The Invisible Hand is a knotty old think piece, it’s one that never loses sight of its drama, not for a second. It’s Homeland with an MBA and, even if it’s guilty of a certain box-set slickness (perhaps the same western perspective as well), it’s a thrilling examination of these turbulent times.
The Invisible Hand runs at the Tricycle Theatre until 2 July.