Mamet is back. His 2009 play Race is an offbeat courtroom drama set entirely in a lawyers’ office before the trial begins. Jack and Henry are two hotshot attorneys, one white, one black, who must decide whether to accept the case of a prosperous banker, Charles, accused of raping a black woman in a hotel. Jack and Henry have a young black trainee, Susan, whose ethnicity and gender may help them sway the jury.
The case against Charles turns on sequins. The victim swears that her dress was torn off during the attack but a hotel cleaner found no sequins on the floor. Sequinned attire is naturally deciduous, or, as Jack puts it, ‘a sequined dress, you look at it wrong, they start to fall off’. The cleaner suddenly retracts her statement and asserts that she saw sequins strewn everywhere.
Susan, who already considers Charles guilty, is accused of persuading the cleaner to change her testimony. This twin-investigation structure is ingenious. And both inquiries are niftily calibrated to pivot on the issues of skin colour, sex and exploitation. But Mamet keeps tinkering with the plot. Every five minutes a fresh detail drags the story in a new direction and the viewer begins to feel manipulated, rather than charmed and captivated. One example: Susan is a hugely intelligent, amazingly talented and highly sophisticated trainee. Yet she declares that Charles is guilty ‘because he’s white’. So what happened to her intellect, her talent and her sophistication? All are subordinated to her bigotry so that Mamet can drive the train into his chosen station and conclude that ‘race is the most incendiary topic in our history’.
The good news is that Mamet’s taut, fraught, nervy dialogue bristles with shocking and hilarious truths about the legal process. One lawyer suggests that a damaging quote may be taken ‘out of context’. Another retorts that ‘out of context’ is the definition of a court. To work well the play needs a band of virtuoso actors ripping through the dialogue at ramming speed and investing every syllable with verve, passion and sincerity. Terry Johnson’s suitably heady production pulls it off.
Jasper Britton creates a tour de force as Jack Lawson, the seen-it-all motormouth whose aggressive cynicism is so extreme that he becomes not just likeable but strangely adorable too. Nina Toussaint-White matches his truculent rhetoric step for step. As does Clarke Peters, playing Henry. And there’s a reason the supporting actors all receive identical notices to the lead. They sound the same. Mamet has often struggled to differentiate his characters but here he doesn’t even bother trying. They all adopt the tone of a whiny, insistent, self-pitying, self-taught, alpha-male smartypants. Even Susan. If Mamet ever chose to write a fictional autobiography of John Lennon he could capture that chippy satirical aphoristic voice without straying a centimetre from his own. Race is a great night out. You’ll have forgotten it all a week later but that shouldn’t put you off. Below-par Mamet is still more fun than a personal-best performance from a second-rater.
Dramatisations of Paradise Lost fascinate me because they bring the poem back to the genre in which it was originally conceived. Milton decided against writing it as a play for three reasons. To represent God on stage would be blasphemous. To show Adam and Eve naked would scandalise the public and outrage the authorities. And to relate the Fall of Man using theatrical trickery and simulation would violate the sanctity of the subject. So instead he gave it the epic treatment and composed his enormous poem at the rate of roughly 40 lines a night while lying in bed. The muse, absent during the warmer months, visited him only in the autumn and winter. Being blind, he relied on the assistance of casual visitors and house-guests to transcribe the verses on to paper. Amazing, isn’t it? A bloke here and a bloke there went bumbling along to Johnny Milton’s place and got roped into taking a spot of dictation from the old boy. But for the efforts of these secretarial attendants, our language would have forfeited one of its most sustained feats of poetic virtuosity.
An outfit named Fourth Monkey has recreated the masterpiece at a dank warehouse in east London. ‘Have you been to Eden before?’ asked a method actress kitted out as an angel when I arrived. She then sold me a glass of Aldi claret for £3, which slightly marred the illusion that I was luxuriating in God’s garden of boundless plenty. The 27-strong cast made a huge effort to entertain themselves but very little of this rubbed off on the viewers. At each scene change, we were cattle-prodded to a different part of the warehouse, even though the new setting was just a yard from our previous position. Not quite Eden. More like purgatory.