What does a religious extremist look like? What leads a seemingly harmless, well adjusted person to acts of terrorism? These were the questions raised in The Reluctant Fundamentalist by the National Youth Theatre. The play followed an exceedingly polite, young Pakistani man through his time living in the US.
It is a hugely ambiguous piece of theatre, which asks more questions than it answers. We follow Changez as he graduates from Princeton University and lands a job at an elite financial institution in New York. He even meets the love of his life and everything is looking up. But there are unaccountable hints of darkness in his character, which are brought to the surface in his reaction to September 11th 2001.
The players, who were impressively all under the age of twenty-five, engaged with the audience in a number of ways. To maintain the pretence they were in Changez’s brother’s cafe, Pakistani food was handed out. They interacted with the theatre goers, making jokes at their expense and asking difficult questions along the lines of “what do you see when you look at me?”. For one of the scenes, some people were given candles in order to create a solemn atmosphere. This all chimed well with writer Stephanie Street’s philosophy that theatre should be an “active exchange” between the people watching and the people on stage.
9/11 changes everything for the young protagonist. His girlfriend’s mental health problems return, causing her to break up with him and eventually commit suicide. He finds himself being treated differently at work, with a colleague suggesting he shave his facial hair, and he is even detained and strip searched at the airport.
In the symbolism of the play’s ending, there was a suggestion that Changez’s tough experience of the United States led him to an act of unspecified destruction. As terrorism was a main plot thread, it wasn’t much of a stretch to infer that he took violent radical action.
Despite the seriousness of the subject matter, a broad vein of comedy ran throughout the show. An employee at Changez’s company is from Milton Keynes – a revelation, which raised a laugh in itself. His common sense, down to earth British attitude was in stark contrast to the big talking, brash behaviour of his US contemporaries. The main character’s’ roommate is a sporting, all-American stereotype who spouts expressions like ‘bros before hoes’.
The NYT’s latest work was powerful and moving. Changez’s tale provoked genuine emotional upset and its open endedness prompted audiences to come up with their own interpretations of his fate.
The Reluctant Fundamentalist is based on a book by Pakistani novelist Moshin Hamid. It has also been a successful film. It was a National Youth Theatre production at The Yard Theatre in Hackney Wick.