Reviews OWE & Fringe Published 1 June 2013

Race

Hampstead Theatre ⋄ 23rd May - 29th June 2013

Mamet by numbers.

Nathan Brooker

Race is a play that fancies itself a good few too many things. It fancies itself a torchlight on modern liberal attitudes; it fancies itself a cynical exposé on the American legal system; and it fancies itself a tight (and at barely 85-minutes long it is drum-tight), stylish tour-de-force, full of fast-tongued Mametisms, one-line zingers and devastatingly witty axioms. In reality, however, and in Terry Johnson’s by-numbers production, it is a play that overreaches itself and one that ends up being not nearly as combative or as incisive as it thinks it is.

The currency of the play is prejudice, or more accurately post-prejudice, or even more accurately, prejudice. Charles Strickland (Charles Daish) is a wealthy, white businessman accused of raping a black girl. Eighty years ago the case would have been a walkover but now, in a United States that fancies itself post-racial, the fair judgement of the case is re-clouded by all manner of feelings of white guilt, black revenge and good old-fashioned dormant racism. It’s To Kill a Mockingbird 2.0.

The action begins when Strickland, hard-edged but worrisome, seeks out representation from two lawyers, Jack Lawson (Jasper Britton) and Henry Brown (Clarke Peters), one white and one black. They are initially reluctant to take the case, thinking it an exercise in toxic PR, but their junior, Susan, (Nina Toussaint-White) a young black woman, makes a series of rookie errors that forces their hand.

With the dye cast, Strickland is told to take a seat outside while the three attorneys discuss the case. Typically cynical and typically pragmatic, Mamet has his characters relish and parade the fact that they’ve flung any notion of truth or morality out the window by page two. Instead they spar over ‘the game’: what they can prove, what moves they need to make and when and how they lay their cards.

On the surface, Race’s dialogue is a success. Everything zips along nicely, peppered with Mamettian repetition, lines that run over two or more characters and expertly polished observations. But get over the linguistic gloss and there’s very little going on underneath. At one stage, Susan asks Jack: “Are we talking about sex here or race?” and Jack answers: “What’s the difference?” To which the answer is: many things, of course, as they are totally different concepts.

A further ill-effect of Mamet’s ultra-slick dialogue is the deleterious effect it has on characterisation. The cast here make the best of it, but it’s hard to feel any real engagement if one minute a character is jadedly explaining the realities of a situation to another – whom they find so fist-gnawingly naïve they might punch them in the face – and the next he that was such a fountain of the worldly wise now looks on gaping like an idiot while the other lays into him for not realising some glaringly obvious and self-evident truth. After a while it starts to sound like a ‘John and Peter’ sketch by Fry and Laurie, and that primitive capitalist animal that Mamet so successfully captured in Glengarry Glen Ross, starts to look a little clawless and dull-eyed, look closer still and he seems to be wearing a tutu and driving a clown car.

Essentially, I think Mamet thinks of himself as a stone-thrower, enamoured with idea of shattering the misconceptions of his elite, theatre-going audience. With Race though, with its hollow tummy and self-consciously preened and buffed dialogue, it feels like he’s more at home polishing his stones than using them to break the odd window. Mamet clearly has something to say about race in Obama’s America, it’s just that he doesn’t say it with this play.

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Nathan Brooker

Nathan is a freelance journalist at the Financial Times and a freelance researcher for BBC Films. In his spare time he likes watching television programmes made by Armando Iannucci, thinking really hard about things and lying to himself and everyone close to him about liking apricot jam. He lives in London.

Race Show Info


Directed by Terry Johnson

Written by David Mamet

Cast includes Clarke Peters, Jasper Britton, Charles Daish, Nina Toussaint-White

Link http://www.hampsteadtheatre.com/

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