2Heavy Productions and Reading Rep
As I drive to see 2Heavy Production’s staging of David Mamet’s play Race, I hear yet another news story of a white police officer shooting an unarmed black man in North America.
It is part of a long-running narrative in the US and these shocking and powerful stories are not in isolation. The problems of institutionalised, insidious racism are prevalent and vital, and I hope to see writers and theatre makers across the US and Europe responding to it.
Because of this pressing current narrative, I hoped that I would draw parallels from David Mamet’s writing. However, in David Mamet’s play Race we are faced with a scenario that, whilst perfectly current, feels somewhat dated.
A white wealthy man, accused of raping a black woman in an expensive hotel room, seeks legal representation. His two potential defence lawyers, one black, one white, fight over various details, become embroiled in a pensive discussion of sweeping generalisations and vague assumptions about race, and ultimately, discover some uncomfortable truths about themselves.
The nature of those truths, or the solution to the question of the accused’s guilt is never really resolved. The whole discussion takes place in a boardroom, which has been recreated in the space with unflinching naturalism, as has the whole production.
We soon realise that the story is less about the crime and more about the debate, as the two lawyers spa with the issues the case raises. As their discussion becomes increasingly self-reflective, fighting over whose motivations for hiring the black female staff member were the least prejudiced, the space becomes increasingly claustrophobic and I find myself longing to step outside with the characters as they leave the office.
For a dialogue that is so intense and unrelenting in its pace and intention, the performers need to lend a little light and shade, to find pockets of breathing space and reflection for the audience to make sense of what is appearing before them. Chris Tummings playing Henry Brown delivers this well, gliding effortlessly from intense and affronted to dismissive and aloof.
However, the choice to set the piece completely naturalistically implants significant restrictions on the performers’ scope for any physicality. They can do nothing that wouldn’t normally be done in a boardroom, so they stand, pace, lean and sit, and switch between those positions on rotation. It is limiting on both the potential for the use of space and for their delivery of text. Even whispers in corners of rooms would add range to this dense, 85-minute piece.
This intensity of focus, combined with the American accents, make the text hard to follow in parts. Because this debate about bias, offence and prejudice could take place in any boardroom in the Western world, so the accents, that sometimes trip the performers up, feel superfluous.
The play itself, first performed in the UK in 2013 to mixed reviews, fails to raise any real controversy. Its setting in early 2000s New York renders it frustratingly disconnected from any dialogue about race and inherent bias in our own community and context.
Considering 2Heavy Production’s exceptional track record with diverse performers and productions that raise pertinent issues around race and ethnicity, it is surprising to see a predominantly white audience.
It raises interesting questions about the demographic of audiences for theatre of this nature and why so many theatre companies struggle to attract the diverse general public that live in their surrounding areas. Perhaps this play, written by a white middle class American, is not as current or engaging as the other work that this innovative company are used to.
Overall, it is a solid, straightforward staging of this heavily text-based play with some strong, involved performances and an interesting hint of a plot twist at the end, leaving the audience with quizzical expressions as they leave the space.
Reviewer: Liz Allum