Rare Earth Mettle review: anti-Semitic? No. Worth seeing? No

·2-min read
Rare Earth Mettle (Helen Murray)
Rare Earth Mettle (Helen Murray)

Al Smith’s sprawling, slapdash satire caused controversy before opening when it was revealed an autocratic American tech billionaire character had the stereotypically Jewish name Herschel Fink. The Royal Court apologised and promised rewrites and reflection. It was a clumsy gaffe, clumsily addressed.

It’s now clear the character, renamed Henry Finn and played by erstwhile Doctor Who star Arthur Darvill, isn’t an anti-Semitic caricature, just a cartoonish mashup of Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg without a shred of their shared iron will. It’s equally clear this three-hour-plus play, that crams big, teeming ideas into a crudely schematic plot, could do with many more rewrites. Not to mention some cuts.

Henry Finn doesn’t even have the monopoly on villainy in the story. Researcher and senior doctor Anna (Genevieve O’Reilly), who wants to save the NHS by any means necessary, shares his chilly amorality and need for lithium. He wants it to power his electric cars, she to spike the water supply of Stockport, to prove that mild sedation reduces medical, psychiatric and criminal harms. Both end up vying for a ready supply in a salt pan occupied by an indigenous Bolivian whose daughter is dying of blood cancer that’s a legacy of colonialism.

Sounds complicated? That isn’t the half of it. Smith takes oblique aim at political corruption, media manipulation and vaccine hoarding. In one genuinely hilarious moment, he swipes at both referendums and the reductiveness of national identity politics: a great joke I won’t spoil. To Smith’s credit, his play is the first I’ve seen that takes place in the present day, in a world where Brexit happened and the pandemic is happening.

Unfortunately, that recognisable background is far more convincing than the foreground. Ruthless characters submit to tortuously humiliating challenges, or commit selfless acts, just because Smith needs them to. Silicon Valley acolytes chant marketing buzzwords with rictus grins. Sombre Bolivians deliver heavily-accented, epigrammatic homilies against capitalism.

This is a show of half-finished thoughts and botched fixes. Smith has great fun with the idea of mistranslation, Western characters blurting out earnest malapropisms in fractured Spanish, but loses faith in the device every time and reverts to fluent, glib dialogue. Director Hamish Pirie often has the actors address the audience directly, like officiates at a wedding, and makes them do embarrassing, stylized dances during changes to Moi Tran’s cut-out scenery.

Darvill has some great comic moments but he’s fundamentally miscast. O’Reilly slices through the action with exquisite froideur, hands in pockets of a series of stylish outfits, but she’s playing a caricature too. The talents of the supporting cast shine through their sock-puppet characters.

This show isn’t anti-Semitic. It’s bold, current, sporadically funny, fatally ungoverned and exasperating. Is it worth 190 minutes of your life? Ultimately, no.

Royal Court, to Sat 18 Dec: royalcourttheatre.com

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