a confused drama in the middle of a really ugly mess

Al Smith’s new play on ethics, environmentalism, and geopolitics has caused such anger and pain before it even opened that it’s impossible to separate it from the controversy. It appeared that the main character of Rare earth mettle – a narcissistic, megalomaniac tech billionaire hungry for money and power, modeled on Elon Musk – was called Herschel Fink, an overtly Jewish name, perpetuating an anti-Semitic stereotype.

Insisting that the character is not Jewish, the court issued a clumsy apology for “unconscious bias”; the theater has since been in conversation with Jewish performers and community leaders, and will apparently release further updates later this week.

Meanwhile, Smith changed the character’s name to Henry Finn, and the show opened. As it stands, his play is not inherently anti-Semitic, but it’s hard not to feel that it is tainted with racism, or at least ignorance and blatant insensitivity, in its creation. But it is an interesting and ambitious play, albeit highly controversial. And the production of Hamish Pirie keeps the action sprawling with comic book verve.

Arthur Darvill plays Finn, all arrogant, straight and swagger, much like Roman Roy in sportswear. He has discovered that the Bolivian salt marshes, littered with rusty trains abandoned by 19th century British mining operations, are rich in lithium, which he needs a very expensive supply of batteries to power his new green supercar. .

He is not the only one with his eyes riveted on this award. A British doctor, Anna, wants lithium for a mood-stabilizing drug, which she says will be a huge boost for the NHS. And a local politician sees an opportunity to capitalize on her presidential bid.

Lesley Lemon, Jaye Griffiths, Racheal Ofori, Marcello Cruz and Ian Porter in Rare Earth Mettle at the Royal Court (Photo: Helen Murray)

But the salt marshes are home to an indigenous community, including Kimsa and her daughter Alejandra, who live among the corroded locomotives, living off tourists’ money and unaware that the toxic legacy of Western exploitation – the mercury used in it. mining to strip the earth of minerals – makes Alejandra seriously ill.

Moi Tran’s sleek design offers a striking image of openness: a huge glass globe hanging from a swinging rod, spilled powder – part globe, part pendulum, part hourglass, highlighting the imminent apocalypse environmental. Cartoon sets juxtapose salt marshes with air-conditioned California offices and UK labs and conference rooms, and Yami Löfvenberg’s choreographed interludes – aggressive pelvic thrusts, victory dances – connect scenes of intrigue and negotiation of agreements.

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In Smith’s Moral Maze, no one has their hands clean, everyone’s intentions are partly good, and whatever the outcome, the world’s poorest pay the highest price. But the writer doesn’t have a tight enough grip on all of his sons, which also include Brexit, the coronavirus, and gender politics; neither are its characters sufficiently realized to make the human interaction as compelling as the ideas.

Still, there is solid work from Darvill; of Genevieve O’Reilly as Anna, sharp as surgical steel; of Jaye Griffiths doubling as Finn’s harassed aide and the shrewd Bolivian politician; and above all, Carlo Albán as Kimsa, fighting for his daughter’s legacy and her life.

All in all, it’s an intriguing confusion, in the midst of a really ugly mess.

Until December 18 (020 7565 5000)

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