The Invisible Hand by Ayad Akhtar, Tricycle Theatre, 14 May 2016


Last week, Janie and I were trying to figure out when we had booked this piece and why. The rubric just didn’t sound like our sort of thing: “thriller…American banker…a cell in rural Pakistan…every second counts…”

We even wondered whether we’d booked it by accident.

Then it started to dawn on me, slowly. Back in October, we agreed that we hadn’t been to the Tricycle in ages and wanted to go. We spotted that this play was by Ayad Akhtar. We had booked ahead at the Bush a few years ago “on the off chance” to see his play, Disgraced, and had been thrilled by it. So we decided to take a punt on seeing a preview of this play, The Invisible Hand at The Tricycle.

As a City trader might put it, we’d made a very good speculative punt back in October 2015 and cashed in on 14 May 2016.

The play is not for people of a nervous disposition. It is full of suspense. Just in case the scenario didn’t remind you of the tragic case of Daniel Pearl, the play reminds you of that terrible story early on.

Ayad Akhtar understands finance and the markets pretty well; he proved that in Disgraced. Whether or not it would effectively be possible to day trade with millions of dollars on the Karachi exchanges from a makeshift cell in rural Pakistan is neither here nor there. Even I was able to suspend belief for that conceit.

Indeed, I think Ayad Akhtar is, to some extent,  “having a laugh” with us by making the hero’s protégé a young man from Hounslow. That echoes the peculiar case of Navinder Sarao, the Hounslow chap who is believed to have made up to £30M day-trading from a semi in Hounslow and who is accused of causing the 2010 Wall Street flash crash. Finance doesn’t lend itself to laugh-out-loud in jokes, folks, but I suspect that the linkage is deliberate.

Indeed most of Ayad Akhtar’s writing seems incredibly tight and deliberate, making the audience think about complex issues from several sides while at the same time moving the plot along at pace.

The notion of the invisible hand is of course taken from Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments and also, more famously, The Wealth of Nations. It is not novel to bring the fundamental economic idea of the invisible hand into drama. But where others, such as Bruce Norris in The Low Road, for example, managed to irritate the living shit out of me with inept handling of this complex concept, this play by Ayad Akhtar provides a suitably profound and conflicted setting for ideas around the ethics of commerce, finance and money. These subjects are close to my heart, hence my Gresham lectures on Commercial Ethics and The Future of Money, so I was pleasantly surprised at Ayad Akhtar’s deft handling of these tricky subjects.

It would be unfair to say too much about how the play pans out, as thrillers aren’t so thrilling once you know what is going to happen. I am prepared to say that Janie and I both left the theatre quivering from the experience, but in a good way. I guess we’re just about on the right side of the nervous disposition line.

It probably is fair to say that the plot hinges on the uses and abuses of advanced (or inside) information. Now I’m not wanting to get anyone into trouble for insider trading, but actually Janie and I did have advanced warning that this production is a cracker. I got an e-mail from cousin Hilary the day before our visit, which said:

Saw mum yesterday .. & Michael .. took them to 1st performance of Invisible Hand at Tricycle.  Really enjoyed it.  Looking fwd to reading reviews when they come out.

Come to think of it, the reviews aren’t out yet (on writing this posting 15 May), so I suppose this Ogblog post is also advanced information. Is that the sound of drones overhead?…

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