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Theatre review: Race, Hampstead Theatre, London


Sitting awkwardly at the centre of David Mamet’s eighty-minute play about race called Race is a four-letter word about sex.

“Sex or race?” one of the lawyers, the black one, asks, “What’s the difference?”  It’s one of several questions in the play I don’t really understand. Because it begs another question, which is, “What do you mean, exactly, when you say, what’s the difference?”

Mamet is far too clever and talented a writer to be caught out by a confused critic. And my strongest desire in sitting down to watch Terry Johnson’s slyly subversive production of a play generally derided at its Broadway premiere three years ago, and since labelled Exhibit A in the case for Mamet’s decline into hollowness and bluster, was to go against the orthodox grain, swim against the tide, à la Mamet himself.

This proved difficult, despite the hugely entertaining performances of Jasper Britton as the energetically bizarre lead white lawyer, Jack Lawson, and Clarke Peters as his surprisingly older black partner, Henry Brown. They have been sought out by an eerily prophetic Dominique Strauss-Kahn figure, Charles Strickland, a white middle-aged businessman, accused of raping a black girl in a hotel bedroom.

The play, which proceeds as a series of blunt assertions and accusations, disappointingly bereft of Mamet’s trademark jazz swing and savvy, street-wise humour, hinges on whether or not Lawson and Brown will take the case, and this depends on whether or not Strickland is guilty; or rather, whether or not he’s telling the truth.

The interesting thing here is that the process of employment incorporates a preview of the trial itself, with an accumulation of circumstantial evidence surrounding the sequinned dress that may or may not have been ripped off in flagrante. It also emerges that the relationship between Strickland and the girl was more than a one-off.

But there’s another lawyer, a junior, who is also black, and a woman, played by Nina Toussaint-White (a name which in itself gloriously conjures the spirit of the Haitian revolutionary leader); and she has a racialist axe to grind – against her own boss, thus illustrating the insoluble rigidity of Brown’s position: black hates white.

Race, designed by Tim Shortall in a huge wood-panelled office lined with books, split with a Manhattan skyline, deals in bias and prejudice masquerading as the truth about ourselves. And that’s harder to swallow even than the lack of plausibility in the overall situation.

To 29 June (0020 7722 9301)