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FringeReview UK 2021

Rare Earth Mettle

Royal Court Theatre

Genre: Drama, Mainstream Theatre, New Writing, Satire, Theatre

Venue: Royal Court Jerwood Downstairs


Low Down

Directed by Hamish Pirie, Designer Mol Tran, Lighting Designer Lee Curran, Composer Carlos Gutiérrez Quiroga, Sound Designer Ella Wahlstrom, Movement Director Yami Lofvenberg, Voice & Dialect Coach Carter Bellalmey, Assistant Director Camila Ymay Gonzalez, Children’s Casting Director Verity Naughton, Chaperones Roxanne Appleby-Dymond, Dayna Dixon, Stage Manager Lizzie Chapman, DM Charlotte Padgham, ASM Sayeedah Supersad, Stage Manager Work Placement Han Randall, Set built by Ridiculous Solutions.

Till December 18th


Al Smith shows a touch of the heedlessness he gives to his lead character Henry Finn, a more likeable Elon Musk with identical traits but without the serpent under’t. Smith’s original name Herschel Fink caused uproar for obvious reasons. Though modelling a character on the non-Jewish Musk – and the play itself hints no possible anti-Semitism – Smith’s tone-deafness is sobering. He’s thrown a pinch of Mark Zuckerberg into the mix and this might explain the morphology but not the choice. Someone should have told him.

Sermon over and there’s three hours ten to get through. Rare Earth Mettle is epic satire, that unstable genre sprawling in one of those continent-hopping three-directional and fifth-dimensioned tech-grabbing dramas the Court present more frequently (and gloriously) than anyone else.

That 5D bit is Finn’s Musk-like sideways move on the quinoa market as a massive bribe to get to the Bolivian lithium salt flats fuelling the plot. The three directions are first Finn himself, full of ‘you don’t tell an American to turn off their light; you build them a better light bulb.’ He wants lithium for electric cars batteries to save the world.

Next he’s up against Genevieve O’Reilly’s icily controlled NHS saviour Anna, herself like Finn capable of blackmail and double-crossing to obtain lithium to feed the UK’s water supply: to increase mental wellbeing like fluoride for teeth. No matter that’s not remotely feasible, and lithium’s being replaced: the metaphor holds.

Third are the flats themselves owned by Carlo Alban’s shrewd Kimsa, living with his daughter Alejandra (Ashleigh Castro in this performance), ailing with the blood cancer that killed her mother, legacy of colonial silver-mining in a world of abandoned British locomotives like the one they live in.

Anna’s already in attendance on Alejandra as the play starts, and adds to fledgeling-Spanish-speaker Finn’s woes by deliberately mistranslating him to Kimsa to richly comic effect. The play’s studded with comedy; laughs increase till the end when they suddenly stop.

Kimsa and Alejandra aren’t alone though. Jaye Griffiths’ politician Calista and more-than-sidekick Inti (Marcello Cruz), brought in by Kimsa to arbitrate, might rule out foreigners for the moment, but Calista has presidential ambitions. Finn and Anna latch on to them.

Arthur Darvill brings an ideal mix of goofy narcissism flecked with wild outbursts, contrasted with a negotiator’s steel: insinuating bribes and outright blackmail. His distrait manner and instinctive suppression of anything challenging (like his dying mother, even a funeral oration) segues into gloves-off bellows as he fires or orders – because of his own incompetence – the sacking of anyone over twenty-seven. Darvill superbly conveys the instability of boy genius tyros never required or able to grow up, edged with charm and murderous teen behaviour.

Finn has an almost redemptive side. He actually believes his delusion. O’Reilly’s Anna has a vision but it can easily turn to the next thing. But in O’Reilly’s piercing glint of a performance, Anna’s not a one-note sociopath either. There’s history behind her tending Alejandra even though rightly she keeps pressing the hospitalisation her father refuses. But Anna can ruthlessly exploit her own pain, and knows how to twist and find another’s past. The final result is shocking. O’Reilly’s mastery lies in keeping you guessing how ruthless Anna might be, how there’s a trauma of compassion that might thwart that.

So blackmailing researcher Aisling (Rachael Ofori, doubling as fluid-thinking Andrea, freelance writer for Finn) struck off for a lesser offence, Anna exploits both their wounds to co-opt Aisling into her Stockport lithium project. Ofori convincingly develops Aisling’s own skillset to answer this: you feel it long coming. It’s one of many strands enlarging the scope of this play, driving it into the um locomotive it is.

The miracle is it doesn’t come off the rails like those abandoned in the desert, though it could be sanded down for a longer life. Smith continually strands people with and against each other, worms turning, wormholes opening for the deluded.

Of the remaining key players, Alban’s Kimsa is a study in how shrewdness can take you so far before you might just overplay your hand or underestimate, but his growth from land-dweller to local counsellor and almost global player is well calibrated by Alban, partly showing Kimsa’s self-reliance, twisting the decent Inti and even Finn when – with Finn’s better Spanish – they understand each other.

Griffiths’ Calista (also uber-bright Nayra who frightens Finn) radiates all the right words about indigenous peoples, but has relied on her Stanford professor for all she knows. Later that radiance touches an Antarctic blaze as she considers Finn’s offer, then Anna’s in relation to power. Griffiths gleamingly conveys how someone always on public transmission can suddenly shade, and turn to hard barter.

Caveat: Bolivia was in the throes of a coup when this was written, furnishing an opportunity whilst fluidity ruled. A counter-coup has gifted a socialist government. Despite our blithe post-imperialist rhetoric, we can all be a little blind to the real country this represents, because it’s Latin America. Which is what COP26 just reinforced. We mightn’t be so blithe with say Ukraine, or even Estonia.

The cast’s uniformly excellent. Ian Porter’s Stanford Professor Albert Parker under siege by Finn is a cameo to his main role as exasperated Justin, inexorably moved to a decision on Finn. Cruz is animated as eager-to-please Hywel on the same Finn team, but like his role Inti, neatly conveys a break-point. Lesley Lemon’s Jo, yet another put-upon Finn PA, shines in the poignant moment she pleads with Finn to take his mother’s possessions and speak for her. It has consequences. Castro’s role is small but appealingly, poignantly sparky.

Directed by Hamish Pirie with the kind of pulsing narrational energy he brings to plot with a glinting edge to Smith’s deliberately recessed characters, he adds occasional dumb notes: like the silly little dances popular a decade back the Finn crew in particular have to execute. They’re seemingly on the rise again but here are mercifully brief. Overall though Pirie keeps Smith’s play impressively airborne when everyone’s feet are on the ground.

Designer Mol Tran in keeping with epic satire produces a rolling stock of props including a pendant silver ball at the beginning of each act like a plummet or the start of a mining operation. There’s both colour and black-and-white sets of clouds (one rather like the Lehmann Trilogy) with pop-ups like the locomotive carriage, airports, research labs, festive balloons for the salt flats. A glistening white floor rises at certain points, one of the more immutable-seeming fixtures, till it isn’t.

It’s all integrated with Lee Curran’s evanescent lighting design. Strikingly, composer Carlos Gutiérrez Quiroga’s evocative music enjoys stretches against the spectral sound design of Ella Wahlstrom. Movement director Yami Lofvenberg keeps it all fluid – no longeurs here – except those dances.

Despite caveats over length and western conscience doing a bit of colonising, Rare Earth Mettle delivers a rich plotline whose end elicits audible shocks from hardened reviewers. Smith’s built it up all along, but it stings. As comment on western saviours from big pharma and future tech, its value lies in exposing the hows and the whos, their inexorable wearing-down tactics.

Smith’s shrewd deployment of rivalry mines something else: a malign act of oblivion called progress. For the global north. That rivalry tears apart the land people and heritage they’re about to mine anyway, but on a human, visceral scale. He’s also pointed to previous toxins like silver-mines; we can be sure lithium tail-pools will pollute next. At a time when ‘carbon-neutral miracles’ like electric cars are finally coming under scrutiny, and covid-profiteering from pharma and politics exposed, Rare Earth Mettle has found its time. Pruning it though will allow it even more.