The week in theatre: The Wife of Willesden; Rare Earth Mettle – review

It cracks itself wide open to the audience; it hits them in the face. The Wife of Willesden – Zadie Smith’s terrific adaptation of Chaucer, gloriously staged by Indhu Rubasingham and triumphantly embodied by Clare Perkins – is shot through with the spirit of its heroine, who leaps across the centuries to proclaim what she thinks it is that women really really want.

The spectators are squeezed by the action before a word has been spoken. Robert Jones has redesigned the auditorium so that it is partly a cabaret space with some of the audience seated at tables in a pub, based on the Sir Colin Campbell opposite the theatre in Kilburn High Road. Jones is aiming to create “that infamous sticky carpet feeling”. Light bounces off shelves of bottles; the publican wears a leopardskin top and big gold hoops; the punters – from church and temple and mosque and schul and utter godlessness – jostle to tell their stories.

The play began as a monologue celebrating Brent, the London borough in which the Kiln is based, where Smith grew up and where her first novel, White Teeth, is set; Crystal Condie appears as, among other characters, Smith (headwrap, big specs, velvet voice), chiding herself for cultural appropriation. Still, the main – well – thrust is women’s right to a shout and a raunch.

The tale told by the Wife of Bath (here, Willesden) is moved from the court of King Arthur to 18th-century Jamaica, but the more lengthy prologue, in which our heroine describes how she bamboozled her five husbands and kept their peckers up, is extraordinarily close to the original – with added twerking. Anything that sounds particularly modern – or particularly lewd – is likely to come pretty much straight from the 14th-century text. That line about private parts not just being there to piss from? Chaucer. That bit about our heroine having any man – tall, short, black or white – she fancies? More than 600 years old.

Perkins – whose intensity in Lynn Nottage’s Sweat three years ago must have left scorch marks at the Donmar – is tremendous. She delivers Smith’s nimble rhyming couplets at high velocity while powering her way across the stage in scarlet (that’s Chaucer too). She’s not alone. The monologue has expanded into a play in which Chaucer’s quick descriptions are made into tiny snapshots. The dodgy Pardoner becomes a charity bucket collector. When holy men – Jesus among them – are cited, they appear with brassy haloes made from golden metal trays held behind their heads. Everything is on-the-hop, vivacious. As a Ms of Bath – I was born there – I’m not sure I absolutely agree with the wife that what women want is to rule the roost, but I loved hearing her say so.

The Royal Court have made a mess of things with their big new play. And have kept on making things worse. The opening of Rare Earth Mettle was overshadowed by a row about the name of the central character: a greedy billionaire called Hershel Fink. Apparently no one noticed this might be thought an antisemitic stereotype until it was pointed out by “members of the Jewish community”. The theatre apologised unreservedly, acknowledging “unconscious bias”, and changed the name to Henry Finn. “Unconscious”? I’d have thought you’d have to be in a coma not to realise that the name might be a little bit Jewish. Twice over.

Now there is the play itself. Which is one of the dullest I have seen this year. It is a mystery that no one realised this before it opened; surely the anti-dull community might have pointed it out? It is doubly strange, for the playwright, Al Smith, has an impressive record. In what may be the dying gasps of BBC radio drama (now challenged by cuts) he has provided a series of incisive plays, Life Lines, based on emergency ambulance calls. These are everything the flabby Royal Court satire is not. Short, immediate, fresh, cutting.

Rare Earth Mettle – the tricksily punning title should be a warning – makes you feel every minute of its more than three-hour length. The plot hinges on a potentially interesting wrangle between differently tainted parties interested in procuring the rights to extract lithium from salt flats in Bolivia. The billionaire wants to use it to make environmentally friendly fuel (good) and a lot of money (bad). An NHS doctor wants to put lithium in the water supply in Stockport in order to boost the residents’ mental health.

Genevieve O’Reilly, Marcello Cruz, Jaye Griffiths, Carlo Albán and Arthur Darvill in Rare Earth Mettle at the Royal Court.
Genevieve O’Reilly, Marcello Cruz, Jaye Griffiths, Carlo Albán and Arthur Darvill in Rare Earth Mettle at the Royal Court. Photograph: Helen Murray

Performances are more lively than the dialogue. Arthur Darvill is energetically goofy; Genevieve O’Reilly is delectably poised. Yet neither character has any real undertow: they seem to exist only to debate each other. As if to deflect the possibility of solemn lecturing, Hamish Pirie directs with strenuous larkiness. Moi Tran’s design is flat cardboard cutouts. Characters perform robotic funny dances between scenes. A joke about mistranslation is stretched out till it snaps. As was my patience: theatrical incarceration (even in an admirably mask-compliant theatre like the Royal Court) is harder in these Covid times.

Star ratings (out of five)
The Wife of Willesden
★★★★
Rare Earth Mettle ★★

  • Rare Earth Mettle is at the Jerwood Theatre Downstairs, Royal Court, London, until 18 December

Add comment