The Reluctant Fundamentalist
by Mohsin Hamid
Adapted From The Novel For Stage By Stephanie Street
The Way Of The World
It's another trip to the National Youth Theatre which has taken up temporary residence in the Finborough Theatre. This time it's for the last of its trio of summer plays, a densely packed and careful adaptation of Mohsin Hamid's Man Booker Prize shortlisted fable The Reluctant Fundamentalist.
Directed with steely sensitivity and pace by Prasanna Puwanarajah, Stephanie Street's play follows chameleon Changez, a clever if at first malleable young Pakistani Princeton University scholarship student, shaped by a mix of colonial and indigenous literature and movies, who immerses himself in the American Dream.
At first welcomed into a Wall Street consulting firm as an analyst, everything changes (no pun intended, Changez is the Urdu version of the name Ghenghis) utterly after the September 11th attacks.
Played in the round with minimal props, a black, white flecked floor and the window overlooking the Finborough Road alternately exposed and shuttered, this is a thought-provoking and elusive play with a fine cast of young actors.
Akshay Sharan is the eponymous Reluctant Fundamentalist Changez, the polite, quizzical and courteous scholar, who, suddenly turned into an object of suspicion, eventually finds himself pulled between New York and Lahore.
The piece itself with little shafts of humour, carefully anchors itself in true events and attitudes while wrapping itself in an enigmatic playfulness. All of which gives it the feel of a literary riddle. But it's also a meditation on the legacies of imperialism and a spy thriller, as well as a dissection of American and Muslim countries' attitudes after 9/11.
In some ways its complexity is its strength and its weakness, with a lot crammed in a play lastng just a tad over 90 minutes, although it fits with the subtle uncertainly underlying the reliability of Changez's role as narrator.
From a Pakistani tea house, Changez with his brother Hafez (Abubakar Khan) take us through the journey from Lahore to New York and back again on two levels. For one, the high-flying graduate turned corporate warrior for whom "the new normal" is being part of the Manhattan elite.
For the more understated other, Hafez becomes an Everyman waiter, serving drinks while occasionally engaging with the audience to show something more unique and specific than global bland titbits served to the entitled at their gatherings.
Changez is plucked out of the crop of graduates by Jim (Laurence Bown), an executive at valuation firm Underwood Samson. Yet as the play ingeniously dripfeeds us, Changez's own background, isn't as under privileged as the casual Slumdog assumptions of those like Jim. who has his own mixed motives for hiring Changez, would indicate.
He quickly embraces the company culture of binary valuation, outshining his colleagues, all chasing the spoils of corporate competition: focussed, wary April (Jennifer Walser), professorial Wainwright (Jasmine Jones) and outranked Brit Neil (Joseph Allan).
Alongside his success is his tender love affair wih aspiring writer, Erica (Alice Harding) to whom Changez cleaves yet finds himself distanced, eventually literally when her nurse (Reece Miller) relays her story.
Erica's own self-conscious clinging to the memory of a childhood sweetheart and disintegration into mental illness after 9/11 becomes part of Changez's internalized experiences and the aspiration for control of his story and his own sphere of influence over the audience..
With lighting by Guy Hoare and sound by Paul Freeman intricately defining both the outside world and psychic spaces, this is a deliberately destabilizing, entangled piece with a cinematic feel.
Fine skeins of literary and movie references threaded through the script bring a historical depth and a resonance to The Reluctant Fundmentalist. A thoughtful and beautifully performed finale piece at the Finborough gains an unambiguous green light from TLT and her motorised literary assistant.