Garrick Theatre, London – until 21 September 2019
Bitter Wheat introduces us to Barney Fein, an obesely mysogynist movie mogul who, drunk on money and power, views women as little more than his playthings. It is no coincidence that post autumn 2017 and in the #MeToo era, the assonance of the name and the description of the man sound troublingly familiar.
Fein is an ugly man – inside and out, with an ugliness that is matched only by David Mamet’s writing. For this is a play of two halves – a first act that builds towards an explosive exploitation of sexual violation, and a second half that rapidly disintegrates into implausibility. And yet – for all of Mamet’s madness, the chaos of his writing still holds a withering mirror to Hollywood’s vile, vacuous and timelessly rapacious culture. While recent scandals may have rightly pushed Tinseltown’s casting couch into the spotlight – that toxic masculinity and mindset has riven the movie industry for as long as cameras have been turning.
John Malkovich is a fine Fein. Padded up he is as massive the role that sees him onstage throughout the two hour piece. There is satire here but without the slapstick – Malkovich marvels in a role that, like Lambert Le Roux in Pravda or The Producers’ Max Bialystock, takes recognisable caricatures, magnifying them into a driving force.
Mamet takes no prisoners in his writing, with Fein’s Jewish ancestry proving an uncomfortable butt for some of the venom he receives. However, Mamet is to be applauded in recognising the close and long-established ties between his anti-hero and America’s Democrat Party – a recognition that will not sit easily amongst the liberal literati on either side of the Atlantic.
Malkovich is well served by his fellow ensemble who, to differing degrees, are there merely as foils to his monstrous nature. Doon Mackichan is his much put-upon assistant Sondra, a woman of questionable ethics and evident complicity and who, rat-like, flees Fein’s sinking ship.
Making her West End debut, Ioanna Kimbook plays the South Korean movie star Yung Kim Li who finds herself the subject of Fein’s abusive lust. The writer has allowed little room for nuance in the part, but Kimbook turns in a neatly measured performance.
There may be a whiff of sensationalised cliché to this world premiere, but no matter. Mamet’s subject is timely and relevant and Malkovich’s performance is electrifying.
Booking until 21st SeptemberPhoto credit: Manuel Harlan