Scott Karim and Daniel Lapaine in The Invisible Hand (Photo by Mark Douet)

'The Invisible Hand's' Scott Karim on how stories should make sense of the world

Matt Wolf
Matt Wolf

Scott Karim has been gaining deserved recognition of late, whether as Ali Hakim in Oklahoma! at Chichester in the summer of 2019 or at the Bush Theatre later that year as half of Bijan Sheibani's superb two-hander, The Arrival, about the fraught reunion between two half-Iranian brothers. This month, he is opening at the Kiln Theatre as the lone new member to the cast of a return engagement of their acclaimed 2016 production of The Invisible Hand.

First seen Off Broadway in 2014, Pulitzer Prize-winner Ayad Akhtar's play chronicles the political morass in the Middle East through the story of an American Citibank employee, Nick (Daniel Lapaine), who is taken captive by Islamic militants, among whom is Karim's character, Bashir.

The engaging actor spoke one recent day via Zoom from the flat in Holloway, north London, that Karim shares with his fiancée, Alexandra Guelff, whom he met at drama school when they were both studying at the prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA). The wide-ranging chat ranged from Karim's excitement at treading the boards afresh to why he resists being pigeonholed no matter where his life and art may lead.

How does it feel to be back onstage, especially as you were last onstage in The Arrival right before theatres shut?

I feel incredibly lucky. Just being on a set and looking out at the seats is like having a bunch of parties cancelled over and over and then suddenly you're there and the tables are set. It feels as if in a second people are going to gather, which is the one thing we haven't been able to do, and I feel very very lucky to be doing something so good straight away. It's been a bit like England winning the football: you think, `Wait, is this really happening?'

Had you seen The Invisible Hand prior to joining this re-boot of it?

I hadn't, so to come aboard as the only new recruit to the cast is a bit like jumping aboard a train. I was part of an [online] reading of the play that we did last December but that wasn't presented to me as an audition and at the time felt more than anything as if it was about just getting used again to the muscularity of theatre work.

Revisiting it in detail now, I'm so struck by what a pacy play Ayad has written - pacy and punchy in that it doesn't pull punches: [The Invisible Hand] sets itself up as one kind of play about a guy taken hostage in Pakistan and then takes a right turn in the way that it plays out, and that's all down to Ayad's incredible understanding of the bottom line of realpolitik.

How do you feel about the captor you play, Bashir, who is a complex figure, to put it mildly?

While I can't relate to the extremity of action of someone like Bashir, I can definitely relate to his extremity of experience. Like Bashir, I'm British-born but in my case to a father who was born in Sudan of Egyptian heritage and to a mum who's from the East End of Glasgow, which was another kind of minority experience but very white British. I used to blackly joke that I'm of terrorist pedigree being Irish Catholic on one side and of Muslim North African heritage on the other.

Did you feel as if your background had a direct effect on you growing up?

It did. Here I was, this British-born guy in south London of mixed heritage who used to have lots of people coming forward to me with their fears, as if were a kind of Rorschach test. My own personal experience was so bewildering that I spent a lot of time looking for solutions in different places, whether in the army, which I was very serious about in my teens, or via something more deconstructed like economics, which I studied at university [London's School of Oriental and Asian Studies].

By the time I got to acting, I was ready for the more sensual, lived-in feeling of trying to get inside the minds of some of these big ideas. My life has been about moving towards the creative and stories that try to make sense of the world.

So the person comes first with any character, not the politics?

Very much so. This is the first time that I've played onstage a political dissident of Muslim heritage, and I was fearful of how that would be and how I would do it. But what I've discovered is how sensationally Ayad gives voice to the elements within Bashir. You're aware of his lived-in rage as a man at odds with society who is kicking out and kicking off but also of a passion that he hasn't been able to manifest in any kind of normal way.

How did Ali Hakim feel to you, when that offer came?

I did wonder how that character might sit in a modern staging of Oklahoma! Here's this Persian character in unlikely American territory at a specific historical period, but then I thought you know it is in fact possible that Ali is not even Persian and is just a guy who knows how to do a Persian accent really well [laughs]: the show was huge fun to do!

Do you feel like you can play a variety of roles, given your multi-faceted background and skill set?

I do like to think that my life has been about embracing the "melting pot"-ness, so to speak, which is ultimately what all of us are, and that it doesn't matter whether you're from Hertfordshire or Harlem; you're a mix. It's the same with Ayad being of Pakistani heritage but at the same time very New York. I feel with my career that as long as the creatives are not using a sepia filter and have on their technicolor lens for looking at the world, then, yes, I'm good to go!

The Invisible Hand at the Kiln Theatre to 31 July. 

Photo credit: Scott Karim and Daniel Lapaine in The Invisible Hand (Photo by Mark Douet)

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