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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
RACE
at Hampstead Theatre

BLACK SUITS
By JOHN NATHAN

  Charles Daish, Nina Toussaint-White and Clarke Peters/ Ph: Alastair Muir

David Mamet's lawyer-populated play has been presented as evidence of the author's decline. His recent work has punch but little bite, so the charge goes. In terms of his chosen, eponymous subject, it's certainly true that the territory chosen by Mamet has been ploughed and plundered by many a playwright before he came to it, from Shakespeare (Othello) to Rebecca Gilman (Spinning into Butter). Mamet knows this. Writing about Race, he cites John Stone's 1829 Metamora as America's earliest offering on the subject. 

But if Mamet's Oleanna outed the phenomenon of political correctness, on the issue of race he is last to arrive at the party. What on earth that is new did he think he had to say? Not much, it appears. And yet, as this enthralling evening shows, a Mamet play that dramatises what we already know can be a lot more engaging than the offerings of other playwright's telling us something new.

In this case, this is partly because Terry Johnson's production locks into the rhythms of the playwright's dialogue, an energy that hasn't been seen on the London stage since Kevin Spacey and Jeff Goldblum joined forces for the Old Vic revival of Mamet's Speed-the-Plow in 2008.

The main protagonists here – or should that be pugilists – are not film producers but lawyers. Jack Lawson (Jack Britton) is white, and his partner Henry Brown (Clarke Peters) is African American. Their new client Strickland (Charles Daish) – white, and very rich – has been accused of raping an African American woman. 

All the action takes place in Lawson and Brown's wood-paneled office, which, thanks to Tim Shortall's design and a view of what could be Midtown Manhattan skyscrapers, reeks of prosperity. Mamet balances up the onstage racial representation with Susan (Nina Toussaint-White), the firm's new, very attractive law-graduate, who, it emerges, is intent on teaching a lesson or two of her own. She is certainly more than ornamental, even though Lawson hired her at least in part because she looks good. It's a platform – and the set is appropriately split-level – upon which Mamet's male lawyers shoot racially charged attitudes and epithets form the hip, partly as a way of establishing their client’s prejudices but also to illustrate the likely attitudes of the jury.

The plot hinges on the steadily emerging damning evidence against the accused, and whether the legals can construct a defence. But all is in service of Mamet's prime objective, to illustrate the chasm of trust that exists between black and white, and which may have been created by slavery but which still exists in the supposedly enlightened 21st century. The first lesson delivered by Brown asks what a white person can say to a black person about race. The answer? “Nothing.”

There is nothing here as illuminating on race as that revealed by possibly the best play ever written on the subject – Bruce Norris' Clybourne Park. And although Britton and Peters terrifically capture the ruthless, cynical mindset of lawyers for whom justice is more about the joust than what's just, their depth as characters is little more than skin-deep.

Still, there is no sound in the theatre more thrilling than Mamet dialogue. And even if this play suggests that the author is running low on ideas – and with Mamet's track-record, he has right to run low on ideas – for those who didn't catch Race when it appeared on Broadway in 2009, Mamet is still a writer worth crossing continents to see. 

 


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