Without prejudice? David Mamet’s Race at the Hampstead Theatre

Saturday 29th June 2013, matinée

As big fans of David Mamet, we didn’t hesitate to book ahead for the UK premier of his 2009 play ‘Race’ at the Hampstead Theatre.  And when we discovered that Clarke Peters had been cast (last seen by us in the fantastic ‘Five Guys Named Moe’), we were even more excited about going.  Not to mention Terry Johnson (of ‘La Cage Aux Folles’ fame) as the Director.

The theme of the play, according to Mamet, is “race and the lies we tell each other on the subject”.  So, what better place to explore this than in an American law firm where the partners, one white, one black, debate the merits of taking on an apparently unwinnable case – a white man accused of raping a black woman.  Seemingly tricked into taking the case by the junior partner, herself a black woman, every time they try to devise a defence, race confounds the issue, overshadowing everything else.  Don’t be fooled by the naturalistic setting, acting and dialogue – this is a carefully stylised drama which explores the labyrinthine alleyways of race from every perspective before apparently throwing up its hands in despair.  The important thing, though, is that it remains a drama, not an essay, and it is left for the audience to draw its own conclusions.  Terry Johnson’s direction keeps the pace fast and light, and the energy buzzing.  ‘You have to disturb the thinking patterns of the jury’ proclaims one of the characters.  And we certainly had our minds thoroughly shaken up by the end of the play. 

The four-strong cast are all excellent and play off each other to great effect.  As Jack Lawson, Jasper Britton has perhaps the showiest role, playing the hyperactive white lawyer who believes the justice system is basically amoral, but works as long as everyone plays their part.  He is disarmingly tenacious and drives the play forward as he grasps each new opportunity to make a few bucks out of their difficult client.  As Henry Brown, Clarke Peters is the strong, silent presence that puts the debates and arguments in context.  He doesn’t say much, but he delivers some fantastically laconic lines, and provides the gravitas needed as a kind of reluctant arbiter and spokesperson for the black community.  ‘Do you know what you can say to a black man on the subject of race?’ he asks his new client, ‘Nothing’ he responds.  ‘Correct’.  Not that this stops his partner Jack’s obsession with discussing race (whilst claiming to try to rise above the issue), but Peters is the anchor and constant reminder of the difficulty, as Mamet puts it, that “race, like sex, is a subject on which it is near impossible to tell the truth”.

As Charles Strickland, the accused client, Charles Daish skilfully keeps us guessing.  He needs to be the centre of the ambiguity which the play explores, and gets this balance just right, teetering between self-pity, genuine puzzlement, and a hidden desire to ‘confess’, even whilst professing his innocence.  As Susan, a character strangely reminiscent of Carol in ‘Oleanna’, Nina Toussaint-White has the difficult task of playing a broadly unsympathetic character whose motives are not entirely clear.  She pulls it off with feisty determination, moving from silent and passive onlooker to cunning manipulator and delivering the play’s explosive final line with venomous power.

We have written before about actors putting up with disruptions to performances, and there was a rather bizarre interruption to this one.  We are still not sure what happened but a loud bang resembling a champagne cork popping went off behind us.  The actors on the stage immediately cracked up, almost certainly because, unbeknownst to us, the next line was ‘I’m not sure how to respond to that’.  Momentarily unable to continue, Jasper Britton, did respond by popping the lid off his paper cup in retaliation, nicely rounding off the incident and deflecting the laughter before continuing the scene.

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