Writer: Al Smith
Director: Hamish Pirie
Corruption and exploitation are the focus of Al Smith’s Rare Earth Mettle, a story that explores the modern consequences and continuation of colonialism as tech companies, big pharma and politicians fight over the ownership and rights to fruitful mining land in Bolivia. A multi-stranded narrative that exposes the ethical chasms that govern the behaviour and decision-making of groups whose disregard for, or strategic use of, indigenous cultures is all money-making manipulation.
When lucrative Lithium is identified under a local man’s home in the salt flats of Bolivia, he is besieged by international offers of purchase. American tech billionaire Henry Finn wants to mine it for his revolutionary affordable electric car that will end climate change while British doctor Anna wants it for her radical solution to the mental health crisis. But when a politician gets involved, her Presidential campaign creates a series of trade-offs that leave the local man far behind.
Rare Earth Mettle is a play about people with big ideas who can sell a dream but have nothing substantial to base it on. Smith skilfully shows the cold emptiness of all their fantasies as money and power obscure the fragility of conceptual products and solutions. Henry is selling a car that isn’t even built while Anna pedals a medical theory she’s blackmailed and bypassed the regulators for. In contrast, our local hero is the only person in the play with something worth having – land that he may despise but which has true value in heritage and legacy
Smith’s play, running at over three hours, never feels it; instead, it is sprightly and often very witty as it dashes between these four perspectives as the players all try to outsmart and double-cross each other. The play could be edited to create a cleaner shape but there is something continually compelling about the strands Smith investigates in the central plot including the lifecycle of tech company bosses eternally gambling on the next big thing while facing dissension and overthrow from within, or the slippery powerplay of politicians promising local representation and respect but looking only to appropriate wealth for a State they control.
Jaye Griffiths’ politician manages to say all the right things until she’s in office but happily takes cash and unseen silent influence from the tech and pharma representatives to get her where she needs to be, while Carlo Albán is the only character to retain any integrity as a local man trying to protect himself and his daughter but even he learns how to play the game in the end.
Arthur Darville’s billionaire businessman Henry is brilliantly draw, a character and performance that gets ever stronger as the show unfolds. The purity of his environmentalist motives will almost have you buying into his approach, but Darville wonderfully captures the bad behaviour, lack of concentration and annoying excitement that make Henry brilliant but dangerous. Genevieve O’Reilly is quietly monstrous as Anna, her cut glass vowels and lovely manners belying a cold heart with a tint of British superiority that lead her to bargain or worse for her ethically questionable research project.
Rare Earth Mettle is really successful at conveying the complex web of local, national and unregulated multinational organisation that influence a country’s resources. While motives may be noble, the route to achieving them is dirty and dubious. With assets, minerals and even heritage up for grabs who has the right to buy and sell land is in the hands of the dreamers with nothing to show for it.
Runs until 18 December 2021