In Al Smith’s ambitious and cynical new play, everybody has a price and kindness is only ever part of a deal.
At the centre of Rare Earth Mettle is the huge expanse of lithium under the Bolivian salt flats where Kimsa (Carlo Albán) lives with his sick daughter. Bartering for the land is a billionaire CEO played by Arthur Darvill. The play caused controversy before it reached the stage when the original naming of Darvill’s character, as Hershel Fink, was criticised for perpetuating antisemitic stereotypes. More investigation needs to be done but the theatre has apologised for “unconscious bias” and the name of the character – who is not Jewish – has been changed to Henry Finn.
Finn, very obviously a fictionalised Elon Musk, is desperate to use the mineral to revolutionise electric cars but comes up against a determined-although-ethically-dodgy doctor who believes it should be used medicinally (Genevieve O’Reilly). Both challenging and clever, the highly researched script features huge and varied philosophical debates about power and ownership, as Kimsa and the local indigenous communities claim a right over their lithium-laden land. Jaye Griffiths is elegantly ruthless as local politician Nayra, wanting to do the best for her community while having her sights set on greater leadership.
Where the play loses its grip on us is in the lack of tangible impact from all their intellectual entanglements and complex political motivations. In this play, everything is plot, a quick-spinning cycle of secret deals and wordy debates. We speed through gigantic change, including literal edits to history, with little time to feel the repercussions. And Kimsa’s daughter as the key emotional hook is barely used.
But it’s funny, Darvill particularly, who is wonderfully spry as the narcissistic, egomaniacal tech mogul. He dances around the stage in expensive tracksuits, manipulating people, geography and grief for his own gain, too rich to care about anything, even as his empire begins to crumble around him. Smith’s script also contains some brilliant comedy in the way it plays with language and miscommunication.
Rare Earth Mettle has enormous scope, but it tries to do too much. There’s a moment, very near the end, where a suggestion of a single action is like a jackhammer, and the emotional impact of that makes you realise how it’s been lacking elsewhere. It’s incredibly smart, but there’s not quite enough heart.
Rare Earth Mettle is at the Royal Court, London until 18 December.