'Rare Earth Mettle' review — an appealingly acted play that deserves consideration
The Royal Court is no stranger to controversial plays, but this one – and now? That’s one way of describing the faint air of disbelief surrounding Rare Earth Mettle, the Al Smith play that arrives trailing clouds of ill will generated by the name of its leading male character. That personage, an Elon Musk-like entrepreneur and mogul who names his inventions things like “Edison Evelyn”, was originally called Herschel Fink as the play was making its way toward the Royal Court mainstage.
Outcry arose within the Jewish community that the choice of name was potentially anti-Semitic and so it was changed to the more neutral Henry Finn – which Arthur Darvill, playing this CEO with a penchant for boxer shorts (as opposed to briefs), makes a point of announcing by way of self-identification early on. Indeed, Jewishness turns out to be entirely irrelevant to a baggy, shapeless but appealingly acted play that seems to have drawn attention for all the wrong reasons.
The imbroglio is especially unfortunate given the renown attached to the Court, of all London venues, for being culturally and politically right on. In fairness, it should be pointed out at the performance attended that a far-from-full house gave the play a warm response at the end, as if to signal that the clamour surrounding the work is ultimately in no way germane to the experience of spending three hours inside playwright Smith’s imagination.
It’s to the credit, too, of the director Hamish Pirie that the three-plus hours (one interval) truck easily along. Our interest is abetted by the sheer novelty of a play that starts in the Bolivian salt flats before going to on to encompass California and the UK. Shaped like an epic, the action in fact feels comparatively intimate; Smith favouring the extended face-off or tete-a-tete with some hefty monologues thrown in. That’s as might be expected from the gifted author of Harrogate, which turned up in the Court’s tiny Theatre Upstairs in 2016. A perfect miniature of its kind, that play was a keenly structured stealth bomb next to which the more sprawling Rare Earth Mettle can’t help but look more diffuse.
At the same time, this play does keep your interest as we track the burgeoning rivalry that develops for Bolivia’s lithium resources between Darvill’s cheeky Henry, who is taken to peering at his crotch, and a crisply spoken Anna (Genevieve O’Reilly, late of The Ferryman), a big-deal medical researcher who has come to South America to secure lithium for use in the UK water supply to the general betterment of the health in Stockport, to start with. Ricocheting from one grand topic to another while taking in local politics in the same breath as realpolitik, Smith’s play sometimes feels like a travelator stuffed with hot-button concerns ranging from Brexit and the coronavirus to climate change and the comparative merits of Bill Gates vs Steve Jobs. (Those are both men one assumes that the Henry Finns of the world would know.)
Smith has a keen ear for the offhand remark: “When you are rich, history is whatever you say it is,” opines Kimsa (a likable Carlo Alban), a wary tourist guide who forms part of the indigenous community and who is on to Henry at first sight. Add in a local “madam president” called Nayra (Jaye Griffiths) who won’t be easily fleeced by the predators in her midst and you have a cavalcade of people in a play that exists somewhere between satire on the one hand and fodder for a tempestuous mini-series on the other. It’s as if the swinging glass sculpture that marks out Moi Tran’s cutout-filled set were a visual emblem of a play that pivots between political banner-waving, environmental outcry, and specific character-related lampoons. The play deserves consideration for reasons other than those being afforded it just now, and one wonders whether Smith will take this opportunity to work on changes that are about more than simply replacing a single letter in someone’s surname.
Photo credit: Lesley Lemon, Jaye Griffiths, Racheal Ofori, Marcello Cruz,Ian Porter (Photo by Helen Murray)