WE know that David Mamet doesn’t beat about the bush; he tackles sensitive issues and the least attractive aspects of human nature head on, while his characters use language as weapons against each other with such ferocity and guile that the audience is left with a sort of battered admiration.
That’s Mamet at his best: American Buffalo, Glengarry Glen Ross, Speed-the-Plough, Oleanna. But Race doesn’t see the playwright at his best. Some of this play’s failings are evident in the title: it’s too self-conscious, too obvious, too intent on nailing the big theme; at the same time, it falls short of meaningful insight. Perhaps most surprisingly, it simply isn’t very dramatic.
Designer Tim Shortall, who recently demonstrated what you can do with a tiny stage and minimal dressing in These Shining Lives at The Park Theatre, enjoys the bigger canvas at Hampstead, creating a beautifully brown-panelled, book-lined, expensively upholstered lawyer’s office, whose vast windows look over a skyscraper city. This is the setting for the battle of wills involving three lawyers – two partners and their trainee – and a potential client who has been charged with rape.
Though the charge is a sexual one, the subject that’s muddying the waters, for the lawyers, is race. As far as they’re concerned, whether Charles Strickland (Charles Daish) is innocent or not is irrelevant; the fact that the alleged victim is black means his goose is cooked.
The play opens with Jack Lawson (Jasper Britton) and Henry Brown (Clarke Peters) giving Strickland an almighty brow-beating about the mess of racial hatred and political correctness that makes his position a grim one. They turn him every which way, partly to prove that the justice system is an “alley fight” – and they are the best brawlers in town – partly in search of good reasons why they should take his case.
The fact that Brown is himself black is used by the attorney to make Strickland even more uncomfortable. “What can you say to a black man on the subject of race?” Brown asks. “Nothing” is the meek reply. “That’s absolutely right.”
While there are credible issues here, as an opening gambit for the play this simply doesn’t ring true. These guys are grandstanding right out of the blocks, posturing and pontificating, effectively presenting a paper to the audience, not their client. The tirade and those that follow – as the attention switches to young assistant Susan (Nina Toussaint-White), also black, and whether Jack has been altogether PC as her boss – smack of contrivance.
The result is a brisk and fairly enjoyable 90 minutes of Mamet-lite – the muscular language is much in evidence, including some of those recognisable jabs beneath the rib cage as characters tease truth and motivation out of one another; but on the whole a lot of skipping around the ring that doesn’t add up to much. The structure is poor, with little sense of the time that’s passing, and the sudden conclusion, with a horribly black and white punchline (no pun intended), leaves one incredibly disappointed.
Britton reminds me a little of Kevin Spacey, with his almost deserved self-satisfaction as he owns the room; Peters (with serious form on the London stage but best known as the great, cerebral detective Lester Freamon in The Wire) lends weight to proceedings, while also getting the best, lewdest joke; but both he, Daish and Toussaint-White are hampered by under-developed characters.
This review first appeared on The Arts Desk