Based on the bestselling novel by Mohsin Hamid and transferring from a run last year at the Finborough theatre, The Reluctant Fundamentalist is well adapted by Stephanie Street who has worked with director Prasnana Puwanarajah before. The NYT’s production is a whirlwind tour through Manhattan, Manilla, Lahore, and New Jersey in the fall.
Eschewing the novel’s framing device and much of its later narrative, in the play Changez is a bright young striver from Lahore who, through dint of hard work and the magic of financial aid, is living his own Cinderella story at Princeton and then at top consultancy firm Underwood Samson. His colleagues – all insufferable Ivy-Leaguers – engage in an employment arms-race, where they work against each other for the ever-contingent attention of their boss Jim. Jim takes a shine to Changez, much to the consternation of the others. His performance reviews are excellent and he’s constantly rated the number one performer in his cohort. The midnight hour comes for him though, as it does for everyone else, on September 11th 2001. His American dream of flourishing despite origins is tested not because he’s horrified, but because he’s not. Quite the opposite in fact.
With his wispy beard and searching eyes Akshay Sharan captures the earnestness of Changez but perhaps not his spite. His volte-face from darling of the American liberal elite to anti-imperialist pariah strains credulity. Those of us with beards and brown skin have all experienced our fair share of dirty looks, pat-downs, and ’come with me please sir’, at airports but it would take a lot more than that to abandon the high-flying consultancy career he’s managed to procure for himself. ‘Why don’t you just shave it off?’, an affronted colleague enquires. Who would have thought growing a beard could be a political act – but that’s what the piece ultimately does so well. It brings to bear the weight of history on the slender shoulders of a young Pakistani. Whose subsequent disintegration mirrors western society’s own schizophrenia about muslims and thereby anyone who feels conflicting loyalties; to partners, employers, even nations. To enter one world is to leave another, to betray another…
Ably directed by Puwanarajah whose cast jut in and out of Changez’ life marking the juxtapositions of his environment and his inevitable sense of dislocation. The supporting actors are impressive with Reece Miller doing a particularly nasty turn as a US customs officer, patting down Changez at JFK with a contempt reserved for an enemy combatant, which, because of what he looks like, he may as well be to Americans who had never heard of Afghanistan, Islam, or Osama bin Laden before 9/11.
Alice Harding gives an assuredly mature performance as Changez’s troubled love interest Erica who precipitates his turmoil by giving him a reason to return to the soil that ostracises him. But she’s dealing with her own grief, mourning her first love, whom she lost to cancer some years prior. Changez is a reminder of that love but also more ominously that time does not heal all wounds.
Muhammed Kahn displays comic finesse as Changez’s brother Hafez. It helps that he gets most of the play’s funniest lines including an explanation of ‘load-shedding’ to the bemused Yard Theatre audience with knowing nods from members hailing from the subcontinent. His handing out of Gulab jamun, samosas, and chais are a cheeky way to bring the audience into the piece. But as with the play itself this serves to implicate the audience into Changez’s story, we eat his food yet we judge him. How do we react when there are people who want to kill us just for being us, be they Al-Qaeda or the US government? How do we feel about such people?
Guy Hoare’s minimalist lighting accentuates the spare production. A key scene, lit only with candles given to audience members, takes on the quality of a vigil. Given the attacks in London and Manchester earlier this year it seems fitting.
The Reluctant Fundamentalist is at the Yard Theatre until 12 August.