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Sunday 2 June 2013

Race, Play by David Mamet , Hampstead Theatre, London, 9* out of 10

In his book “The Honest Truth About Dishonesty - How We Lie to Everyone, Especially Ourselves” (Harper and Collins, 2012) the behavioural psychologist Dan Ariely develops his “fudge factor”- theory about how people decide whether to behave honestly or dishonestly. “....our behaviour is driven by two opposing motivations. On the one hand we want to view ourselves as honest, honourable people. We want to be able to look at ourselves in the mirror and feel good about ourselves (psychologists call this ego motivation). On the other hand we want to benefit from cheating and get as mch money as possible (this is the standard financial motivation). Clearly these two motivations are in conflict. How can we secure the benefits of cheating and at the same time still view ourselves as honest , wonderful people? This is where our amazing cognitive flexibility comes into play. Thanks to this human skill, as long as we cheat by only a little bit we can benefit from cheating and still view ourselves as marvellous human beings. This balancing act is the process of rationalisation, and it is the basis of what we’ll call the “fudge factor” theory.”

I am usually sceptical about about the validity of plausible theories, but this one might be both plausible and valid. Of course, you and I might very well be exceptions to this rule by either being always totally honest or always totally dishonest; but as a working assumption for dealing with others in the real world, this theory may well be valid and useful.

Outwardly, all the characters in David Mamets play Race are either black or white. Jack Lawson (Jasper Britton) (white) and Henry Brown (Clarke Peters) (black) are the two partners in their Manhattan law-firm. Susan (Nina Toussaint - White)(black) is a young, highly talented, Harvard-trained lawyer working for Jack Lawson. Charles Strickland (Charles Daish) (white) rich respected businessman appears in their office unannounced. He explains that he has been accused of raping his black girl-friend and that he is innocent. He has just left the law-firm that represented him and would like Lawson and Brown to represent him from now on. Jack Lawson and Henry Brown have to decide whether to accept Strickland as a client and, if so, what strategy to deploy in a case, where the playing field is very uneven as a result of the role race plays in it. 

As the play proceeds the issue of race also enters into the way the various pairs of characters interact with each other and justify their own actions to themselves. Outwardly the people in this play are either black or white, but inside these highly trained and educated individuals are able to paint a firework of shades of grey with their great cognitive flexibility.

Mamet shows again that he is a master of plot and dialogue. The audience is kept on their toes: never a dull moment from the opening lines to the end and the issues of Race that are explored on stage are all worth exploring. This play ranks equal in quality with Bruce Norris’ Clybourne Park, that was such a success when it had its London run last year (first at the Royal Court and then in the West End).

The set is beautifully designed, with the evocative New York skyline appearing in the window of the mock Edwardian furnished Law firm.

Director Terry Johnson succeeds with a suspenseful production. The ensemble cast is excellent with an outstanding performance by Nina Toussaint-White as Susan. Clark Peters shines as Henry Brown. Deservedly rapturous applause from a full house. Very few black people in the audience, though.

Poster from the New York Production of the Play

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