Theatre

‘Rare Earth Mettle’ review – Salty, controversial land war drama explores disinteresting self-interest

★★★

Amid an ongoing controversy over a character’s name propagating antisemitic tropes, it’s painfully unfortunate and ironic that one of the first things the Elon Musk-esque billionaire Henry Finn (previously named Hershel Fink) says in Al Smith’s Rare Earth Mettle is “apologise”.

And the Royal Court has already done so, writing in a statement on 6 November that the character isn’t Jewish and that the incident is “an example of unconscious bias”. Ahead of the press night performance on Tuesday, a further statement from the theatre said that they’ve been working with the Jewish community to “understand how this harm was committed on both creative and institutional levels”.

While I feel that nothing about Finn – except for his former name – is antisemitic, his personality is based off tired stereotypes about the Silicon Valley giants. The entrepreneur, played by former Doctor Who star Arthur Darvill, is a clear rip-off of the Tesla founder – complete with his own sustainable car company named Edison Motors. Apathetic and incapable of long periods of eye contact, he is also a big tweeter, coming under fire for calling the ideas of Swedish climate change activist Greta Thunberg – who is autistic – “special”.

An optimist would say it’s close to reality for the purposes of satire, yet questions remain about what exactly Smith is supposed to be ridiculing. White people screwing over indigenous communities is hardly a profound or original point to make (‘unoriginal’ unfortunately being an apt word for a production where a lot of its ideas aren’t really ‘rare’).

If it’s about the counter-intuitive way in which healthcare and tech approach the issue of health then – rather frustratingly – we only see that right at the very end of the 190-minute long play. A lot of our time is instead spent buried deep in the self-interests of a series of unlikeable characters (the deceptive politician, the manipulative doctor and the antisocial tech billionaire) who blackmail and cheat their way into their desired positions. Any slight on their characters is an enjoyable bit of schadenfreude, especially when indigenous land owner Kimsa (Carlo Albán) is eventually brought to the forefront of the whole discussion. Looking back on it now, Rare Earth Mettle reads more like a narrative which was compiled as Smith went along – as characters do anything to get closer to the salt – rather than anything that was rigorously planned with all its twists and turns. The only people surprised by the twists and turns in this production are the characters, not the audience.

As a piece of satire, ‘a tech magnate and a leading NHS doctor walk onto a Bolivian salt flat to fight over lithium’ sounds like the beginning of an elaborate joke for the philosophically inclined, but it wears a little thin over such an extensive running time. One of the most stunning moments of this play comes in the last few minutes before its end, when Henry (Darvill) and doctor Anna (Genevieve O’Reilly) engage in a thrilling, fast-paced battle of words on creativity and apathy. How frustrating, then, that rather than the similarities and differences between Western tech and Western health being embedded through the entirety of Rare Earth Mettle, it feels more like a footnote, the cramming of the big ideas which should have been gently planted in the subtext, rather than in a flashing flurry of words which are difficult to process in the moment. Hamish Pirie’s direction to deliver the argument at breakneck speed certainly makes it intense, but exposition (however late) should not be rushed.

While questions are raised over the main satire at the heart of Rare Earth Mettle, I’m also left wondering what exactly the point is behind the actors engaging in elaborate dance numbers to electronic music in between scenes. A commentary on how everything is just one big song and dance to the powers that be? Maybe. Yet here it feels gimmicky, out of tune with an otherwise realistic issue.

The other flashing lights and lasers – such as in the play’s conclusion – are particularly eye-catching, of course, and the idea of cut-out scenery and frames being manoeuvred by those who require them is an interesting touch, highlighting the disconnect between corporate interests and the man whose daughter is dying from blood cancer. Pirie’s choice of having the characters face the audience most of the time – rather than each other, face to face – also fits well within the world of backstabbing and opportunism. It’s a shame, however, that all of these discussions occur without significance. It wouldn’t even be fair to say that the characters are lecturing us as they project into the auditorium, because unfortunately with Rare Earth Mettle, the pursuit of self-interests alone isn’t interesting.

Rare Earth Mettle is now playing at the Royal Court Theatre until 18 December.


Disclaimer: I was invited to watch ‘Rare Earth Mettle’ for free as a member of the press. I did not receive payment for this review and all opinions stated above are honest and my own.

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