Rare Earth Mettle review: A bloated three hours of incoherence

Beyond the controversy and occasional flashes of brilliance, Al Smith’s hot-topic epic about a delusional tech billionaire fighting over land in Bolivia is inconsistent, inescapably cartoonish and inordinately long

Isobel Lewis
Wednesday 17 November 2021 15:28
<p>Arthur Darvill and Carlo Albán in ‘Rare Earth Mettle'</p>

Arthur Darvill and Carlo Albán in ‘Rare Earth Mettle'

The first time Arthur Darvill’s Henry Finn loudly declares his name in Rare Earth Mettle, you could hear a pin drop in the auditorium. The audience has seen the headlines surrounding Al Smith’s new play, after the Royal Court changed the name of tech billionaire from Hershel Fink, following criticism that it reinforced antisemitic stereotypes. In a statement, the theatre said that “unconscious bias” had caused the initial naming and a follow up is expected later this week about the Court’s work and discussions with Jewish theatre makers. It’s admirable that they’re not rushing to easy answers but the clumsy debacle leaves a big question mark hanging in the air on opening night.

The character of Henry doesn’t have any connection to Judaism. He is instead “the very worst kind of industrialist”, an insufferable tech-bro billionaire based with zero subtlety on Elon Musk. He tweets offensive comments about Greta Thunberg and throws money around willy-nilly, causing headaches for the hipster board members at electric car company Edison Motors. Doctor Who star Darvill plays Henry with a childlike energy, a way of stretching out words on his tongue of a man not used to being talked over.

In Bolivia, meanwhile, Kimsa (Carlo Albán) lives on a salt flat, his home an abandoned train left by British colonialists in which he cares for his sick daughter. Then Finn arrives. He explains in broken Spanish translated to the audience as broken English (an initially funny conceit that loses its punch fairly quickly) that he wants to buy Kimsa’s land, beneath which lies 70 per cent of the world’s lithium. But lithium might be able to do more than power electric cars, with British doctor Anna (Genevieve O’Reilly) believing it has the power to radically improve mental health.

At its heart, Rare Earth Mettle is an epic about the extent people will go to for the “greater good”. Anna’s aims seem noble, but is it ethical to put lithium in water like fluoride? Henry says his cars will stop a worldwide reliance on oil, but his hyper-capitalist nature seems at odds with that. And can either of their ideas – or those of power-hungry politician Nayra (Jaye Griffiths) – maintain the environment of the salt flats and the rights of the indigenous people who live on them? These three stories interweave and overlap, and if it sounds confusing on paper, it doesn’t get much better on stage. There is simply too much going on, leaving it hard to pick out which characters, if any, are worth caring about.

Genevieve O’Reilly and Jaye Griffiths

While lacking in a coherent vision, the production excels in its more abstract moments. The bizarre, synchronised dance sequences that open each scene are an interesting touch, while Moi Tran’s set sits on the right side of absurdity, with grainy pictures and strips of fabric giving a collage-like feel to the design. When the show strays into reality, it’s a lot weaker. Smith has made the decision to incorporate the pandemic into the script, but it feels unnecessary and cheap. While elbow bumps and hand sanitising get chuckles from the audience, it’s used inconsistently – a mask is presented as a gift, but no one wears one.

And then there’s Henry himself, a character teetering on the edge between reality and ridiculousness. Darvill gives a strong performance, but Henry is such a caricatured, cartoonish baddie there’s nowhere to go with it – one rant about how the NHS is a wasted venture and people should be allowed to smoke, actually, prompted me to roll my eyes at the stage. The strong ensemble cast make the most of the often-funny script, but at three hours and 10 minutes (another eye roll when I saw that), it’s far too long. There are flashes of brilliance in this show, but it’s bloated. For many audience members, the controversy will be a sticking point.

‘Rare Earth Mettle’ runs at the Royal Court until 18 December

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