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‘Rare Earth Mettle’ review

  • Theatre, Drama
  • 2 out of 5 stars
Rare Earth Mettle, Royal Court, 2021
Photo by Helen Murray

Time Out says

2 out of 5 stars

Scheming Westerners clash over a Bolivian salt flat in this controversial new drama from Al Smith

Well let’s get this bit out of the way with. In case you missed it, Al Smith’s new play for the Royal Court made (bad!) headlines after it emerged during previews that ‘Rare Earth Mettle’s manipulative Silicon Valley billionaire protagonist was named Herschel Fink, a parodically Jewish name for a character apparently based on noted non-Jew Elon Musk. In casting around for a name, Smith appeared to have conflated Jewishness with greed and wealth, and nobody had pulled him up on it. Hit by a backlash, the Court denied the character was Jewish and attributed its failure to pick up on the obvious antisemitism to ‘unconscious bias’. A more fulsome response is promised soon, but it’s difficult to come to any conclusion besides institutional antisemitism, in the sense that as an institution the Royal Court failed to spot that it had blithely harboured a massive racist trope within one of its works. 

That said, with the character’s name now changed – to Henry Finn – then I'd personally say ‘Rare Earth Mettle’ is not an antisemitic play. This isn’t to let the Court off the hook for previous actions that need to be answered for. But to me the character, played by Arthur Darvill, does not come across as coded Jewish, but does come across like a not-even-especially-coded parody of flamboyant troll Musk. Both make electric cars, both are obnoxious dickheads on Twitter, both are given to throwing their wealth into weird tangential projects, both clash with boards who are concerned about their erratic behaviour. It’s really not subtle. But for some it will simply be tainted by association, and perhaps the wider question is whether audiences still feel comfortable attending a play that’s caused so much upset.

Anyway. ‘Rare Earth Mettle’ is a three-hour ten-minute epic set in the salt flats of Bolivia, that follows flamboyant electric car manufacturer Finn and bloodless NHS doctor Anna (an icy Genevieve O’Reilly). Each is trying to get their mitts on the land belonging to tough indigenous man Kimsa (Carlo Albán) and his sick daughter, which comprises a rusted old train that the pair live in… and 70 percent of the world’s lithium. 

Darvill is a blast as the ridiculous Finn, who we first meet singeing his balls off (almost literally) in the desert while spouting terrible Spanish to Kimsa, but whose most enjoyable scenes come while terrorising his licklespit staff, who are constantly dumbfounded by his preposterous 5D chess moves (which at one point involve ploughing much of his private wealth into purchasing a Bolivian quinoa business). The brash, charismatic Darvill is a lot more likeable than the odious Musk: he’s a cynic but he’s not really a monster. He wants the lithium on the cheap so that he can manufacture a budget electric car, and there does seem to be something vaguely noble in his quest, albeit not his methods. Whichever, the sheer puppyish daftness of his machinations is often rather endearing. This is not necessarily something that serves as a recommendation of Smith’s play as a serious work of theatre. But Hamish Pirie’s colourful production is always entertaining.  

It is fun. But it’s glib

O’Reilly is also good value as Finn’s steely rival, though for all the conviction she puts in Anna feels rather less explicable: she works for the NHS, and wants the lithium for something so mad and implausible that it feels like it would be spoilering to actually say here. It’s possibly best to view her as a sort of embodiment of more traditional Western soft power, but it felt rather distracting that almost everything about her character and goals turns out to be extravagantly unbelievable.

It is fun. But it’s glib. And it often blunders around too carelessly to really work as a satire. For all O’Reilly‘s magnetic froideur, Anna is not a credible character, while Henry feels too charming and eccentric to really serve as a meaningful critique on the tech bros currently shaping our world. And Smith’s representation of Bolivian politics feels crude: sure, he’s cynical about his western characters, but given all the offence ‘Rare Earth Mettle’ has already caused, I found it difficult not to question the appropriateness of his depiction of Bolivia as a country where wealthy Westerners can buy themselves an election via a fairly unsubtle series of crackpot schemes. 

Like I say, it’s good entertainment. But its broad, incautious tone rarely feels suited to making a profound or nuanced statement on Anna and Henry’s neocolonialist adventuring. The name of the character may be changed, but there’s an underlying crassness that feels of a piece with that terrible decision.

Andrzej Lukowski
Written by
Andrzej Lukowski


£12-£45. Runs 3hr 10min
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