The politics of Lithium
“It’s always blue eyes who think brown ears can’t hear white words.”
“You don’t tell an American to turn off their light; you build them a better lightbulb.”
Al Smith’s new play Rare Earth Mettle looks at the battle for the rights to the lithium reserves under the salt flats in Bolivia. There is Kimsa (Carlo Albán), who lives there in a nineteenth century abandoned locomotive, whose wife died there and whose 12 year old daughter is very sick. Competing for the land are American billionaire Henry Finn (Arthur Darvill) who wants to reduce the cost of his designer electric cars; the batteries need lithium; and Dr Anna (Genevieve O’Reilly) who wants to put lithium in the English water system to reduce the incidence of depression in the population and the drain on NHS resources.
Henry has money to back his business plan; Anna’s lever is the medicine Kimsa’s daughter Alejandra (Ashleigh Castro) needs. Jaye Griffiths plays Nayra, a local politician who wants to control the lithium mining and sales but she needs money for her political campaign to become president of Bolivia. Nayra claims to make opportunities better for women and to support the indigenous regions.
Opening the acts is a single, large glass ball like a giant bubble, swinging like those in the business desk toy the Archimedes’ Cradle.
This is symbolic of the swing between those that want to control the supplies of lithium. We see Anna presenting a paper on her proposals using as illustration the 1955 addition of fluoride to the English water supply and the consequent improvement in dental health. But it is Nayra who appears to have played the trump card in claiming control of lithium extraction for the indigenous community and ensuring the outcome is best for the community and the environment.
CEO Henry Finn meanwhile has lost the support of his company’s board but will come up with an ingenious plan which I will not disclose but will include bribing a senior academic at a prestigious university.
Designer Moi Tran has given us essential changes of scene from the salt lake locomotive to board rooms and hotel meeting rooms also using line lighting across the stage to delineate a change. Lee Curran’s lighting and Ella Wahlström’s sound design are well thought out to enhance the complexity of this play’s many locations.
Director Hamish Pirie, with experience at Paines Plough, the Donmar and the Traverse as well as the Royal Court, directs this large company and gets excellent performances from his diverse cast. Arthur Darvill, as Henry Finn, often Americanised to Hank, chamaeleon-like has the entrepreneurial ability, like Bill Gates or Elon Musk, to re-invent himself while focusing on the quest for success.
This is not a short play coming in at three hours ten minutes but it kept my attention throughout, helped by incongruous yet joyful dances to Carlos Guitiérrez Quiroga’s music, between scene changes lightening the production. There is also lots to laugh at, not least Henry’s attempt at Spanish, “Soy Bean Americano” when of course those from South America also count themselves as Americans. Henry’s PA Jo (Lesley Lemon) also speaks the most amusing misplaced Spanish.
So here we have that sought after production, a play with interesting characters, real issues including the environment with a clarity of debate and potential outcomes.
Rare Earth Mettle
Written by Al Smith
Directed by Hamish Pirie
Ashleigh Castro/ Giselle Martinez
Director: Hamish Pirie
Designer: Moi Tran
Lighting Designer: Lee Curran
Composer: Carlos Guttiérrez Quiroga
Sound Designer: Ella Wahlström
Movement: Yami Löfvenberg
Running Time: Three hours 10 minutes with an interval
Booking to 18th December 2021
Jerwood Theatre Downstairs
Royal Court Theatre
London SW1W 4AS
Phone: 020 7565 5000
Tube: Sloane Square
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge at the
on 16th November 2021