David Mamet set out to provoke with his terse 2009 drama ‘Race’, and he succeeded, at least in part. Every so often, a deeply uncomfortable observation about race relations bursts out of this UK premiere with enough brute plausibility to slap the air from your lungs.
There’s a handful of such moments in ‘Race’, and the great alpha male of American theatre still knows how to come up with a plot. This story – of a white guy (Charles Daish) who, when accused of raping a black girl, deliberately hires a black lawyer (Clarke Peters) to defend him – packs a bounty of twists and turns into its lean 80-minute run time.
So just imagine how good it might have been if Mamet had bothered writing any actual characters. ‘Race’ is a forceful but pathologically shallow night of masculine bellowing, a determinedly un-PC, tell-it-how-it-is thesis on modern American racial taboos that would have been way more effective if we gave two hoots about any of the people on stage.
This is not to lay the blame with director Terry Johnson or his cast: indeed, Peters invests his character, Henry, with a battered humanity and gentleness he scarcely deserves. But he’s the only one who rises above the painfully rhetorical dialogue – Jasper Britton puts in a powerhouse performance as his white partner Jack, but it’s all sound and fury. The characters are ciphers, and there’s something joyless about the manner in which Mamet seems to suggest that the outcome of the case was never in doubt.
If nobody else had the balls to say this stuff then I’d cut Mamet a bit more slack, but in the wake of Bruce Norris’s ‘Clybourne Park’ and Ayad Akhtar’s ‘Disgraced’ – two brilliant race relations plays by younger American writers – ‘Race’ feels like the work of an old slugger, way past his best.
By Andrzej Lukowski