The TheatreguideLondon Review
Hampstead Theatre Summer 2013
David Mamet has written a strong and courageous play that says some very disturbing but difficult to refute things about race in America and about what even the most intelligent and enlightened people, black and white, feel about the other race.
In the past Mamet helped shape the vocabulary for discussing modern romance (Sexual Perversity In Chicago), masculinity (Glengarry Glen Ross) and sexism (Oleanna). It is possible that Race will become a touchstone in future discussion of what Mamet in a programme note calls 'a subject on which it is near impossible to tell the truth'.
A small law firm with one white and one black partner is approached by a middle-aged white man accused of raping a young black woman. They quickly make it clear to him that guilt or innocence is not the issue – everyone involved will have already made up their minds, based on racial assumptions, and their job is to manipulate those prejudices in his favour.
The process is complicated by the presence of a junior lawyer in the firm, a young black woman, and in the course of the play her attitude toward the client, his toward her, and hers toward each of her bosses and theirs toward her, will lead to open discussion of things most people try not to think about, much less discuss openly – their own assumptions and prejudices about race.
And the talk is good, and the debate powerful.
Mamet, it comes as no surprise, is a master of language, and as in his other plays he has created characters of natural eloquence, for whom words are sensual things. Not least of the play's pleasures is the rhythm and music of the slightly baroque vocabulary and syntax of Mamet-speak.
But it is not empty music. Mamet's play is far from pessimistic and even farther from being racist. By reminding us that we have not yet come as far as we like to think we have, it provides an impetus toward going further.
And, not at all incidentally, it is engrossing theatre. The legal drama is inherently fascinating, the dynamics of debate and discussion between the partners, with the client and with the junior lawyer create an ever-shifting power imbalance, the content of the discussions (be it race or courtroom tactics) is fascinating, and on the simplest level the what-will-happen-next suspense is strong.
Terry Johnson's production captures much of this, holding our interest throughout the uninterrupted eighty minutes of the play, and keeping the energy level high almost to the very end. (Only the final seconds, ending on a fizzle rather than a bang, seriously disappoint.)
Jasper Britton as the white lawyer carries much of the exposition and debate, and proves himself a master of Mamet-speak, combining unflagging high energy and emotional intensity with the ability to make complex arguments clear. Clarke Peters balances him as the partner whose mode is quieter but for that reason potentially more authoritative, as everything he says carries weight.
Charles Daish generates some sympathy for the accused totally apart from whether he's guilty, by showing how out of his depth he is in thinking his guilt or innocence is the central question. Only Nina Toussaint-White is not quite up to the level of the others, the fault being at least partly Mamet's. In a role similar to the woman in his Hollywood play Speed-The-Plow, the character is less clearly defined and the actress less able to sustain the emotional and linguistic intensity of the others.