At one point in Al Smith’s controversy-entangled play, the name ‘Henry Finn’ is spelt out in huge letters on the stage: so big you’re meant to be able to see them from a satellite. It’s a bald, weird moment that a lot of directors would have quietly removed when the name in question has been the cause of so much controversy and heartache. But there it is, resplendent in red. It’s no longer a stereotypically ‘Jewish’ name (originally, it was Hershel Fink, risking making this billionaire an antisemitic trope) but it is a reminder of the bewildering lack of care that went into a crucial part of this play’s journey to the stage.
It’s comforting to imagine that things run smoothly, orderly, at big public institutions, but one episode of The Thick of It would correct that presumption. People make mistakes, they respond too quickly and then mop up the mess afterwards. At the Royal Court, the response to the name Hershel Fink prompted a rapidly released statement claiming “unconscious bias”, and then a fuller statement late last week that described the work the theatre is doing to make amends. It’s a bit messy, a bit tentative, but it feels, hopefully, like positive things could come of this.
But what we’re left with in the meantime is a puzzle of a play. Al Smith’s Rare Earth Mettle is a contradictory thing. It’s often pacy and exciting to watch but it still drags over its 3 hours 10 running time. It feels like a satire but it’s not always clear what of. And it occupies a slightly strange tonal middle ground: not quite heightened and ridiculous enough to be a surreal farce, but not even close to realistic enough to effectively depict reality.
It’s mostly set on a Bolivian salt flat with a deposit of highly valuable lithium underneath it. Henry Finn wants it so he can use it to make batteries for his fleet of electric cars (he’s a very thinly veiled version of Elon Musk). NHS senior director Anna wants it (rather less convincingly) so she can legally spike the water supply with lithium to see if it reduces the incidence of depression. Kimsa owns the salt flat and must decide who to sell it to: with the consent of the rest of his indigenous community, who are reluctant to see the landscape degraded again, just as it was under British colonialism.
There’s plenty you can give Rare Earth Mettle credit for. It has some smart, revealing moments about capitalism and consumer psychology, for example: ‘Compassion Engineering’ is, as Henry explains, a process that simulates “primal bonding psychologies” by injecting small moments of resistance into interactions with the product – you love it more because it makes you work harder.
There’s also something interesting about its attempt to depict Kimsa and his indigenous community in a way that’s unpatronising and complex: he’s an interesting figure, feeling betrayed by the indigenous leaders who claim to speak for him, and desperate to forge a life on his own terms.
But there’s also something frustratingly thin about the way it treats each of its three main players. Especially Henry Finn, who’s a kind of affable, even bland every guy type. He’s clearly based on Elon Musk, but without any of his deep weirdness: Musk arguably satirises himself so effectively there’s no point anyone else trying, but still this play doesn’t offer anything a fraction as funny as Musk’s bizarre twitter presence (standout statements: the pyramids are built by aliens, Musk himself is an alien, he’s building a cyborg dragon). At the conclusion of the play, Henry says “The past was shit. It was cheaper, sure, but shittier and sicker. Tech has changed the world for the better.” It feels like something he’d say at the start of the play, too, because he never develops: never shows us the darkness that comes with tech, or the ruthlessness that comes with having billions to play with.
Anna is even more baffling: the idea that she’d care for Kimsa’s sick daughter as a way to get the lithium from him is grotesque and implausible, as is the suggestion that she’d bring “super antibiotics” as a bribe. And Kimsa doesn’t ultimately get the agency and independence you’d hope: ultimately, he’s just an accessory to the oddly likeable Henry Finn’s crime against the environment.
I kind of expected that Rare Earth Mettle would be a heavy-handed critique of capitalism and it’s really not. Instead, it’s too scattered and diffuse to be about any one thing: but it’s especially concerned with how power corrupts on all sides of the political spectrum. Ultimately, Henry is likeable and Anna feels like the real villain, as the play slides into the familiar trap of making left-wing hypocrisy more repellent than right-wing skulduggery.
But then tech and its surrounding rhetoric are seductive. Even Hamish Pirie’s production feels boyishly, gawkily excited by the potential of a tech-led future, working with designer Moi Tran to load the production with geeky design flourishes; there’s a lot of use of lasers, creating effects that fall into the realms of impressive-for-theatre without transcending them, and there are gawky sci-fi style dance breaks between scenes that sit oddly between earnest and silly.
Succession uses a multimillion pound budget to depict the world of the super-rich – it’s hard for theatre to depict an expensive world without looking cheap, and this production doesn’t manage it. It’s also hard for a single play to explore the trajectories of three contrasting figures: it would take a series to really make Henry, Anna and Kimsa feel like well-rounded characters. As it is, Rare Earth Mettle’s ultimate pay off is a reasonably satisfying gotcha that nonetheless doesn’t feel worth the time (over three hours) it takes to get there.
One of the rare bits of character shading that Smith offers is Henry’s troubled relationship with his own past. He refuses to mourn his mother, or to go to her funeral: he wants to write himself out of his own history. It’s a moment that, like the name that blazes across the stage in red letters, starts to feel ironic in the context of the controversy around Rare Earth Mettle. With the name change, Henry Finn becomes a person with a missing context.
Other reviewers have written that Rare Earth Mettle isn’t an antisemitic play, but perhaps what’s more accurate to say is that it would be harder to see it as an antisemitic play if you watched it unaware of the context surrounding it – especially if you weren’t a Jewish audience member.
But then, context is everything: including the context of the present moment, when tensions between institutions and individuals are running high. So much of the humour when you satirise someone like Elon Musk comes from the disconnect between their high-flown corporate world and that of the lowly mortals in the real world. He doesn’t care and doesn’t need to care what ordinary people think. Theatres don’t have the same luxury: they’re a part of a community, and it’s been disappointing to return to the theatre and see the disconnect between higher-ups and their employees and audiences. But at least the Royal Court is responding to this situation by opening conversations – all we can do is trust they’ll listen.
Rare Earth Mettle is on at Royal Court until 18th December 2021. More info and tickets here.