There may be no such thing as bad publicity, but casually offending the Jewish community in a play that counts cultural sensitivity among its themes must come pretty close.
Ambitious satire Rare Earth Mettle centres on the megalomaniac billionaire previously known as Hershel Fink, a man with no apparent ties to the Jewish community apart from his name, which seems to play on antisemitic stereotypes.
“A genuine mistake, guv”, says the theatre. “He was never supposed to be Jewish”. Which, as David Baddiel pointed out on Radio 4, is perhaps even worse, demonstrating the subconscious bias of not only a single writer but every subsequent person who read the script.
Following a swift change in nomenclature on opening night, Hershel Fink became Hank Finn, a more generalised megalomaniac billionaire. Clearly based on Elon Musk – also not Jewish, for what it’s worth – Hank is the boorish, maverick owner of an electric car company called Edison Motors. Despite being unimaginably rich, he’s on the cusp on driving his business off a cliff owing to his refusal to raise the price of his cars above $40,000, even though the cost of lithium batteries alone is far more than that.
We meet him on a Bolivian salt flat offering to buy the land from a local man living in a disused train car for the princely sum of $10,000; it comes as absolutely no surprise to learn that below the train lies the world’s largest lithium deposit, worth an incalculable sum.
Two other stories are woven into the mix: that of a British doctor who wants the lithium to put into the water supply, à la fluoride, in a bid to cure depression; and a Bolivian politician who wants to sell the lithium to make her country the new Saudi Arabia. The common thread between the three is ego, each one caring more about their own place in history than history itself.
What follows is essentially a convoluted version of the famous ‘trolley problem’, in which everybody attempts to push everybody else under the trolley. Hank thinks the Bolivians are worth sacrificing in order to save the world from climate change; the doctor would condemn them in order to further the field of mental health; while the politician would push the rest of the world under the trolley to make her country rich.
It’s blunt to the point of being juvenile, and, at well over three hours, I feared I was up Shit’s Creek without a lithium battery. But Al Smith’s play gallops along at a decent clip, his script dealing better with the second-to-second than it does the timeless.
Clad in a series of Kill Bill-esque tracksuits, Arthur Darvill is excellent as Hank, a kind of Adderall-generation idiot savant who bounces across the stage with the confidence of a man who can buy everything he sees. “You don’t tell an American to turn off their light,” he says without a hint of irony. “You build them a better light bulb”. He gets all the best lines, including a genuinely hilarious opening exchange in which his broken Spanish is spoken in plain English (“Soy bean Americano” / “You’re a black cup of coffee?” / “Truthfully”). Other highlights include a focus group in which words that appeal to male car buyers are discussed, including “bevel” and “chamfer”, which, as an erstwhile technology reporter, felt remarkably accurate.
But other aspects fall flat – the politician’s arc feels tacked on, and a twist involving the doctor doesn’t land. There are also some odd stylistic choices, such as dance interludes during scene changes that the actors don’t appear to be fully sold on, and some cheap-looking props that belie the otherwise high production values.
Rare Earth Mettle will struggle to emerge from the cloud of controversy under which it opened, but even putting this to one side it fails to live up to its own lofty ambitions. Smith has a fantastic ear for dialogue but his play is cynical to a fault, his overall thesis amounting to little more than “people are dicks.”