Garrick Theatre, London – until 21 September 2019
Any production that has John Malkovich heading its cast in a new David Mamet play is going to sound like a sure-fire box office hit. World premieres don’t often land in London’s West End without first being safely ‘tried out’ in the subsidised sector.
So it’s brave programming from Nica Burns and her Nimax group, even given Bitter Wheat’s headline grabbing authorship. Mamet, for anyone who’s not been around over the past 25 or so years, last made a real stir in London a quarter of a century ago with Oleanna, the play that split audiences down the middle with its contentious, provocative exploration of the subject of sexual harassment and false accusations of rape.
Mamet’s Bitter Wheat, judging by the reactions of those around me last night, may do similarly though maybe without some of the heightened invective swirling around at the time although, heaven knows, with its return to a theme of ‘sexual harassment’ coupled with the shadow of the Harvey Weinstein case looming large and the #Metoo movement, there is plenty of scope for division and antagonisms to flare.
Once again, one has to observe, as I did in 2004 when Oleanna was revived, Mamet does have a way of contriving facts and insinuating certain outcomes. Weinstein’s alter ego – here called Barney Fein – is, like his original ‘inspiration’, a large girthed American film producer, yearning for recognition, with a super-ego the size of the Hollywood Bowl and manipulative with it.
Bitter Wheat is, in essence, a monologue on behalf of Barney Fein. We get him, supercharged, in technicolor, all the obsessions of a mind-set stuck in, and maniacally recycling itself as a ‘victim’ at every turn, whether because of his weight or his outsider Jewishness status mixed, seemingly, with contempt for almost every other living human being, save, strangely, for a sudden show of humanity towards the end for an immigrant assassin with whom he feels instant rapport – despite the fact said immigrant has just shot his mother dead in a department store.
Such are the quirks of the Mamet sense of humour in a script spattered with one-line gags and odd, surreal, Pinteresque juxtapositions. All of which is spelt out in laboured, narcissistic fashion by Malkovich under Mamet’s direction with, it has to be said, comic bravura.
© Manuel Harlan, John Malkovich as Barney Fein, luxuriating in his gross misconduct…comic bravura…
Theatre audiences love a monster and Malkovich/Mamet’s Barney with his combination of `bull-in-a-china-shop’ brash, control freakery and Richard III demonic energy, makes for compulsive viewing.
So far so `enjoyable’; less so when eventually Mamet gets to the point of the exercise, the manipulation of a young Asian actress raised in England to whom Fein promises the world – `Bitter Wheat’ being the alternative title for the film, Dark Waters in which she has appeared but whose distribution rights appear to be denied to him.
The scene, a crucial one but nonetheless deeply uncomfortable to watch, comes as the climax to the brow-beating, harangue of the past hour and a quarter although its awful truth appears to have struck true for those around me who had experienced similar in their careers, judging by comments in the interval!
© Manuel Harlan, Doon Mackichan as Sondra, trusted PA to movie mogul, Barney Fein…
Less understandable are not only the bit-parts ascribed to the rest of the cast including the brilliant Doon Mackichan (Smack the Pony, The Day Today) as Barney’s longstanding PA, Sondra, reduced to a mere `feed’ or stooge mouthing hard-bitten showbiz cynicism to Barney’s fear and loathing, but the sudden change of heart and lurch into empathy Mamet gives Barney in the second half.
There are nice moments from Ioanna Kimbook as the hapless Yung Kim Li who nonetheless learns quickly how to turn the tables. But longueurs with the scene changes makes for a stuttery two hours.
© Manuel Harlan, Ionna Kimbrook as promising young actress, Yung Kim Li, finally turning the tables…
Overall, although Bitter Wheat could be said to lift the lid on one of the major, now discredited customs and practise of exploitation of power in the film industry, you can’t help feeling Mamet’s real joy is in the gags he manages to lift out of the appalling dysfunctional human detritus that passes for Barney Fein.
In reality, it perhaps does nothing more than give the talented Mr Malkovich a star vehicle in which to display his not inconsiderable talents.
Hope springs eternal in Barney’s eyes. There’s always another script to lever into a film, some poor innocent schmuck to take for a ride. Still, it leaves an unpleasant taste in the mouth which perhaps was also part of Mamet’s intention.
Barney Fein: John Malkovich
Sondra: Doon Mackichan
Yung Kim Li: Ioanna Kimbook
Roberto: Alexander Arnold
Doctor Wald: Teddy Kempner
The Writer: Matthew Pidgeon
Charles Arthur Brown: Zephryn Taitte
Writer & Director: David Mamet
Set & Costume Designer: Christopher Oram
Lighting Designer: Neil Austin
Casting Director: Amy Ball CDG
Assistant Director: Danielle Baker-Charles
Assistant Designer: Alfie Heywood
Lighting Associate: Jamie Platt
Costume Supervisor: Mary Charlton
Producers: Jeffrey Richards, Smith & Brant Theatricals, John Frost/Suzanne Jones, Scott Landis, Salman Al-Rashid, Caiola Productions, Greenleaf Productions, Dominick LaRuffa Jr, Latitude Link, Gavin Kalin Productions, Eric Falkenstein, GFour Productions, Ken Greiner, Carl Moellenberg, Jacob Soroken Porter.
World premiere of Bitter Wheat at the Garrick Theatre, June 7, 2019.
Runs to Sept 14, 2019
Review published on this site, June 20, 2019
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