Thursday, 6 June 2013

Theatre review: Race

At some point David Mamet must have decided that dealing with a single inflammatory topic in 85 minutes wasn't enough for him, hence Race which covers both rape and racial politics in a legal drama that never actually sets foot in a courtroom. Following an ongoing sexual relationship with a much younger black woman, white millionaire Charles Strickland (Charles Daish) has been accused by her of rape. Having left his original lawyer, Strickland turns up at the offices of Jack Lawson (Jasper Britton) asking him to take on his case - the fact that Lawson's business partner Henry Brown (Clarke Peters) is black will, he hopes, stand in his favour with the jury. The lawyers aren't keen to take him on but an error by Lawson's protégée Susan (Nina Toussaint-White, who regenerated into River Song on Doctor Who) sees them legally bound to represent him. The race is now on to second-guess how the case's racial makeup will affect the jury, and find the one piece of evidence so compelling it'll override it.

Without giving too much away, the actual conflict of the drama ends up being less about the legal case and more between two of the co-workers in the law firm. But outside of that the play still provides Mamet's usual fast-paced, foul-mouthed dialogue and stories of double-crosses and hidden agendas.

On a super-naturalistic set from Tim Shortall, Terry Johnson's production is taut and fast-paced, with a stellar performance from Britton as the hyperactive Lawson, counterpointed by the quiet stoicism Peters brings to his partner, with Toussaint-White between them as a highly intelligent young lawyer but a loose cannon, whose own hangups about her race become important as events go on. And there's a lot of entertainment to be had in the four characters' sparring and the way Mamet has them build up a case to defend a man who initially seems indefensible.

It does, though, feel overloaded with Mamet's own white guilt, and though its open-endedness is obviously intentional it is frustrating. There's partly a transatlantic issue here: I know from American friends both black and white that they feel compelled to take race into account in the tiniest detail of dealing with someone of another race - particularly in black/white relations, due to the country's history with slavery. I'm far from calling the UK a bastion of racial harmony, but it seems to me like, in younger generations at least, we don't feel the need to micro-analyse every word we speak to someone of another race, to filter out hidden meanings affected by centuries of inequality. And so there's a certain disconnect, for this UK viewer at least, from the overriding preoccupation of the play.

Because although sexual politics feed into the story as much as racial ones do, Race is an apt title as it's the obsession behind every beat of the play. Mamet presents it interestingly, with his customary violent wit and with some of the opinions coming from people you wouldn't necessarily expect to express them. But although it's a fine production with intense performances, there's a claustrophobic feel to Race that I don't think is entirely intentional - it's crushed somewhat under the very hangups it's trying to shine a light on.

Race by David Mamet is booking until the 29th of June at Hampstead Theatre.

Running time: 1 hour 25 minutes straight through.

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