“What can you say to a black man on the subject of race?”
The Bee Gees once sang ‘it’s only words’ and that was my abiding sentiment as I left the Hampstead Theatre after seeing David Mamet’s Race. Circumstance conspired to prevent me from seeing this on the press night and I allowed myself to be convinced to try again to see it, but it was one of those instances where fate should have been allowed to play out. Even over its short running time, Race rarely feels like a piece of coherent drama spoken by fully-fleshed characters but rather a collection of ideas strung together and placed into mouthpieces.
Its subject is right there in the title, centred on the debate in a lawyer’s office about whether to take on a politically charged case of alleged rape involving a (presciently Strauss-Kahn-like) powerful man. The case is deemed problematic by the defendant being a black woman, the accused a white man, and it is further complicated by the inter-racial dynamics of this law firm. Throw in some gender politics and the rich/poor divide and the scene is set for some coruscating debate on some eternally pressing issues, but Mamet fudges it completely.
A pre-set defeatist tone about anything to do with race neuters much of the argument made within. And there is a lot of it right from the off – the playwright’s customary sharpness with his dialogue is present and expertly performed in Terry Johnson’s production – but a weariness soon sets in as fiery cynicism and manipulative self-interest means there’s less debate and more pronouncement, this is one iceberg with no hidden depths.
Clarke Peters and Jasper Britton as the lawyers neatly suggest a lengthy shared history despite the sketchy characterisation and Nina Toussaint-White works well as the enigmatic newcomer to the firm who, as is becoming a little too predictable with Mamet, has a game-changing secret up her sleeve. Daish’s accused rapist though never feels like a real person, no realism at all to his situation and so there’s just not enough power to underline the noise of this play which is ultimately all just confrontational bluster.