Rare Earth Mettle at the Royal Court – review

The piece, which has already been featured in many headlines due to admissions over antisemitism, opens in London

Rare Earth Mettle
Rare Earth Mettle
© Helen Murray

That old saying that there's no such thing as bad publicity? I doubt they'd agree with that over in Sloane Square right now, where this new play and the Royal Court itself have been trying to weather a storm amidst confessions of perpetuating antisemitism and institutional insensitivity, exacerbated by the venue's initial defensive response, which had the dubious distinction of mollifying absolutely nobody. The offending character, an unscrupulous Silicon Valley billionaire allegedly modelled on Elon Musk was hastily renamed Henry Finn from the original Hershel Fink, but leading Jewish figures from the theatre industry and beyond, as well as their allies, were still justifiably furious.

"It was a mistake, it shouldn't have happened" stated the Royal Court, followed by a commitment to "dismantle antisemitism internally". Setting aside the point that, in the 21st century, there should never have been antisemitism in one of the foremost venues for new writing in the country, it's a challenge to look at this play and production any way but through the prism of this controversy. It still gives me no pleasure to report that, apart from the sterling efforts of a strong cast, the lamentable row that broke out just as the show went into preview is probably the most interesting thing about this ambitious but dramatically undernourished script.

It's a bit of a slog, falling somewhere between satire and thriller. It's certainly not that Al Smith can't write: some of the individual scenes are compelling, and the dialogue frequently has a punchy wit. Nor does he lack willingness to tackle big, wide-ranging themes, presenting the tale of international power players scrabbling for control of lithium-rich Bolivian salt flats, each convinced that their projects are for the greater good of humanity while also serving their own, murkier motives. Their sophistication and sometimes absurd posturing juxtaposes amusingly with the quiet determination and occasional bewilderment of the indigenous people, whose resourcefulness and intelligence are underestimated by the American entrepreneur Finn and high flying English doctor. Hot button topics such as the environment, mental health, and media manipulation are also dealt with in the course of the text.

It seldom catches dramatic fire though, feeling more like a slightly worthy and wordy film script than a stage play; an episodic, relentless parade of shortish scenes, some of which work well individually, but collectively becoming more exhausting and confusing than stimulating. Hamish Pirie's unfocused staging is partly responsible for this: actors spend more time declaiming out front than interacting with each other, and the multiple scene changes, inexplicably featuring bizarre choreography and the tiresome rolling about of scenic flats on Moi Tran's ugly set, often feel longer than the scenes themselves, spinning an already lengthy text out to an interminable three hour running time.

Setting the piece in the early stages of the current global pandemic gives it a certain piquancy. Smith sets up a last minute debate between the compassionate doctor and money-obsessed businessman on the NHS versus private medicine that feels authentic and impassioned, yet shoehorned in. There is an affecting, visually astonishing final image that contrasts the high gloss achievement of big business with the small scale human cost but it is a striking moment at the end of what too often feels like a misanthropic endurance test than a satisfying, coherent play.

The cast are excellent. There was no reason why Finn should ever have been Jewish and Arthur Darvill invests him with a reptilian unpredictability and wired energy that commands attention. Genevieve O'Reilly could afford to relax the cut glass English accent a bit but otherwise makes an intriguing, convincing figure out of Dr Carter. Jaye Griffiths has moments of real power as an increasingly disenchanted political leader and there is precise, funny, intelligent work from Racheal Ofori in dual roles as a pragmatic speech writer and a disgraced junior doctor. Carlo Albán is an oddly haunting yet gritty presence as the salt flat dweller with more to lose than anybody, who learns to play the sophisticates at their own game.

There are some lively debates on offer here plus the opportunity to dip into a South America seldom seen on stage. Ultimately though, Rare Earth Mettle is frustratingly hard to connect with and, in Pirie's uncompromisingly stark production, proves as dry as the salt flats on which it is mainly set.