Monday, 22 November 2021

Theatre review: Rare Earth Mettle

Like every other industry at the moment, London theatre can't seem to let a year go by without a scandal; and since "getting to run the National despite presiding over the Spacey years at the Old Vic" apparently isn't troubling anyone, it's fallen to the Royal Court instead, and Al Smith's Whoops I Done An Antisemitism binfire surrounding Rare Earth Mettle. The furore surrounded Smith giving a stereotypically Jewish name to the morally dubious millionaire at the centre of the story, which is ironic because this could all have been avoided if he'd just called him something like Melon Husk - it's not like the inspiration is subtly concealed. Instead he's been renamed Henry Finn (Arthur Darvill,) a man who's made a fortune in tech and has ploughed it all into an electric car company (called Edison, because like I say... not subtle.)

In theory the revolutionary, economic car design is ready to launch, but in reality they can't afford to make the batteries because of high lithium prices, and even the display model doesn't really work. But Finn might have an answer in the salt flats of Bolivia, where Kimsa (Carlo Albán) lives with his sick daughter in a rusting train left over from colonial days, which he tries to make money out of as a tourist attraction.

The salt flats contain 70% of the world's lithium, and the complex ownership rights of the various indigenous peoples mean Finn might be able to get the land from Kimsa cheap. British doctor Anna (Genevieve O'Reilly) has a very different use in mind for the lithium, and when indigenous politicians Nayra (Jaye Griffiths) and Inti (Marcello Cruz) realise there might be a bidding war going on for the land, they see an opporortunity to stop their country's assets from being stripped by the West like they have been historically, and they take charge. Essentially the next three hours are a back-and-forth of underhand deals and power struggles as the various sides haggle and betray each other to wrest control of the precious metal.

At least Smith's script contains nothing to suggest that Finn was ever actually intended as a Jewish character or stereotype*, nor is he the outright villain he might originally seem - while the Elon Musk parallels are obvious, and extend to him not quite registering that his staff are actual humans who need to be paid, in Darvill's performance he's also a bit comically hapless, charming in a way the real thing could never manage. And we're quickly clued in that nobody's got the moral high ground here, when Anna translates his offer of tens of thousands of dollars to Kimsa as a new TV and some football shirts - the modern equivalent of some shiny beads. In fact everyone vying for the lithium does seem to, at heart, have a genuinely altruistic motive - Henry believes he can help save the planet, Anna that she can save the NHS, and Nayra that she can give power to her marginalised people and protect the land from further ravages. It's just that they're all also keenly aware of how much money and power they stand to gain, and have an ends-justify-the-means approach to getting there (it's like a cast entirely populated by Patty Hewes from Damages, but not as entertaining as that makes it sound.)

Because the Royal Court's hands-off approach to text editing is evident in Rare Earth Mettle in ways less egregious than the headline-grabbing one: It's no secret I'm pleased to see a play has a short running time, but I'm not ideologically opposed to longer ones; it's just that, if someone's going up to or over the three-hour mark, I expect them to really justify the demand on the audience's time. And the way the plot meanders, fogging up what the central argument is meant to be, doesn't make a strong case. Hamish Pirie's production feels similarly unfocused, with a cartoonish set from Moi Tran and dance sequences during the set changes that feel like they might just be an attempt to stop the play from becoming a static sequence of people making deals.

Those deals started to get on my nerves a bit too; backstabbing may be a big part of the play's makeup, but by the third or fourth time Henry spends millions of dollars on a handshake deal that he's inevitably going to get betrayed over, you have to wonder how he built his tech startup in the first place without exchanging it for some magic beans. One thing I will say is that the evening stays entertaining most of time, and even seems to pass a lot quicker than its hefty running time. But I think the sterling work by the energetic cast - which also includes Racheal Ofori as a researcher Anna tries to blackmail, Lesley Lemon as Henry's assistant-turned unqualified translator, and Ian Porter as an academic whose principles don't extend to the prospect of having a building named after him - is doing much of the heavy lifting in keeping the evening afloat.

Rare Earth Mettle by Al Smith is booking until the 18th of December at the Royal Court's Jerwood Theatre Downstairs.

Running time: 3 hours 5 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Helen Murray.

*which doesn't mean the naming issue isn't racism, it just makes it casual racism. Which feels quaintly retro compared to the flavours of racism we've had over the last few years.

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