A darkly relevant play about a clash of disparate cultures with more in common than first meets the eye.
With Vienna in a mood of high alert after the deadly Islamist attacks in Paris on November 13, and the violent sexual assaults on hundreds of German women by alcohol-fueled migrants at the Cologne Train Station on New Year’s Eve, relevance can be a hard call. One might prefer the relief of escapist fantasy, or the diversion of drawing-room comedy. Thus it is a courageous choice for the Vienna Theatre Project to stage Ayad Akhtar’s The Invisible Hand, a European premiere that taps into anxieties about terrorism and the wider threats to social stability and values.
Set in Pakistan, this tension-riddled drama follows the fate of Nick Bright (Dave Moskin), an American banker kidnapped and held for ransom by the followers of Imam Saleem (David Wurawa), a charismatic leader recently added to the U.S. terrorists’ list. This makes it impossible to negotiate for Nick’s release, but does little to prevent Bashir (Michael Smulik), one of Bright’s captors, from demanding $10 million in ransom.
Faced with the threat of being handed over to Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, (the terrorists linked to the 2012 murder of journalist Daniel Pearl), Bright convinces his abductors to use his knowledge of finance to obtain their ransom in spite of American policy. If he can do it in under a year, he can go free, setting the ground for an irony-laced exploration of rapacious capitalism, religious fundamentalism and the impact of western intervention in the Middle East.
Under the direction of VTP chief, Joanna Godwin-Seidl, and with powerful performances from Smulik and Moskin in the leading roles, The Invisible Hand has lost none of its topicality since its 2012 debut in St Louis; on the contrary, it remains a provocative and timely analysis of competing world views.
“Everyone’s dealing with the devil in this play,” said Godwin-Seidl, “and although both Nick and Bashir come from opposite ends of the spectrum, they’re actually a lot closer than they realize.” Both must confront assumptions about the givens of their native environments from profoundly altered
The play takes its title from the 18th century economist Adam Smith, to describe how economic agents, in seeking the respect of their fellows, “are led by an invisible hand” to make decisions in the interests of the larger society. Akhtar’s characters are marionettes manipulated by some concealed force: “It’s not only the markets that are influenced, but also the moral centers of these people that are being moved by an ‘invisible hand’,” Moskin said.
Bashir, for example, begins to experience the thrill of betting on the market. Bright, meanwhile, begins to see how little his life as a prisoner differs to his existence as a free man; in both cases, he simply works the system and piles the profits high for his superiors. The layers of irony are numerous and, as they reach deeper into the production, sew seeds of black humor into a script that is constantly questioning the positions at hand.
With a claustrophobic set design (Richard Panzenboeck) that amplifies the characters’ frayed tempers, director Godwin-Seidl highlights the pervasive reach of avarice in human affairs, in circumstances that have become all too close to the fears we live with every day.
The task of theater, wrote Shakespeare, is “to hold a mirror up to nature, to show… the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.” Bringing The Invisible Hand to Europe in the present climate is a shrewd and relevant choice from the VTP, and one in which we find the form and nature of our own time reflected unflinchingly back to us.
THE INVISIBLE HAND
February 8-20 (except 10 and 14), 20:00
Theater Drachengasse, 1., Fleischmarkt 22 (Eingang Drachengasse 2)