Playwright Ayad Akhtar: ‘America didn’t have to deal with grief until 9/11’

Daniel Lapaine and Parth Thakerar in rehearsal for The Invisible Hand at the Tricycle Theatre

Daniel Lapaine and Parth Thakerar in rehearsal for The Invisible Hand at the Tricycle Theatre - Credit: Archant

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Ayad Akhtar tells Bridget Galton why his play about a kidnapped American banker who teaches his captors how to play the markets shows how extremism and capitalism are more entwined than we suppose.

In a grim hostage cell, American banker Nick Bright is held by Islamic militants hoping to trade him for a $10m ransom.

As his life hangs in the balance, he offers to show his captors how to make vast sums by playing the global futures market.

In this confined space, New York playwright Ayad Akhtar collides the seemingly disparate ideologies of capitalism and religious fundamentalism.

The Pulizer Prize winner says: “I had a situation I was letting play itself out, observing what the characters would do to one another and to themselves, to bring these two communities into juxtaposition and relief.

“Critics will have their interpretations of what it’s about; a critique of capitalism and Islamism, or a confrontation between free market individualism and extremist revolutionary fervour.

“But I don’t see Islamicists as a lot of people do... extremism is the shadowy side of globalisation it’s not so very separate from the Walmarts of this world. These things are intertwined in a way people don’t understand.”

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The UK premiere of The Invisible Hand, which borrows an Adam Smith quote that an individual’s efforts to pursue their own interest often benefit society more than if their actions were intended to, opens at The Tricycle this week.

Akhtar compares the neoliberal cult of the free market to religious faith.

“People don’t really understand the idea of the free markets as a religious ideology but it’s something that is not based on fact and that many in the audience believe and accept on faith. Look no further than the newspapers to see that we are placating an abstraction on a daily basis, we imagine we are affecting its wellbeing and that it is reflective of our wellbeing – we don’t even know we are doing it.”

Nick’s proposal to use his savings to raise his own ransom lead his captors to get caught in the greedy rush of money making.

As a follower of the markets, Akthar offers succint explanations of how they work, although he adds with chagrin “as a writer I’ve never had the money to dabble in them myself”.

As an American of Pakistani heritage, the 45-year-old’s relationship with his country changed irrevocably post 9/11.

“I feel like America never fundamentally had to deal with any significant grief.

“The Second World War didn’t land on our soil. For the first time they had to deal with grief and they didn’t do it in a productive way. Laying waste to a good part of the world was not a positive legacy of the misfortune of 9/11 “

Three years after the terrorist attacks, Akhtar wrote the screenplay for The War Within, a film about a radicalised suicide bomber planning to attack Grand Central Station. Although it explores the springboard for the bomber’s radicalisation, and his emotional and ideological conflicts, America seemingly wasn’t ready for such illumination on “the conversation within the Pakistani American community”.

“The movie didn’t receive any attention but for many years it was mandatory viewing at the CIA task force,” Akhtar observes drily.

“It was way ahead of its time in suggesting a background for the kind of stuff going on now. I do the work, I don’t always get the timing right.”

But the timing for his 2012 play Disgraced was spot on. He scooped the Pulitzer for his sizzling tragicomedy about the racial and class tensions around a New York dinner party table.

“Living in New York, theatre’s always been a part of my life. I always knew I would write a play but didn’t feel I was ready. Then one day I just was and what came out was Disgraced. You can’t write a play thinking it’s going to be relevant. It was a reflection of the life I was living. I was writing stuff I have experienced or observed.”

Akhtar’s poking of assumptions and stimulating of discussion via a hero who cannot embrace his racial heritage has led some to dub him a writer of identity politics, but he wavers that he’s really telling universal stories:

“Disgraced is a timeless story of a hero’s fall from power.

“Oddly I don’t think of myself as writing about identity. I have found my particular to which I can write about the universal. I am writing about something I am interested in, about the community that I come from and the so-called other but it’s about hope, faith, doubt and power.”

And as the American election rumbles on with Donald Trump “making Bush look like an elder statesman.” he observes.

“We’re moving to a landed representational democracy where capital stands in for land and to have money is to have a meaningful say in political progress. There are reasons why neoliberalism has a chokehold on the world’s population, it’s not going to stop any time soon.

“The rights of the individual to flourish and express his or her desires however bizarre, comes at the expense of any kind of collective good

“What is this bizarre scepticism we have about government? We are a society why do we have the notion that my individuality is somehow more important than the collective good?”

The Invisible Hand runs at The Tricycle Theatre from May 12 until July 2.