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West End Review: John Malkovich in David Mamet’s ‘Bitter Wheat’

Malkovich plays a thinly-veiled Harvey Weinstein in Mamet's catastrophically misjudged, cheap and nasty satire.

Bitter Wheat review
Manuel Harlan

How soon is too soon? Hardly a year had passed since allegations against Harvey Weinstein were made public before David Mamet announced that his satire on the subject, “Bitter Wheat,” was set to star John Malkovich in the West End. Six months later, we’re sat watching a corpulent, super-rich movie mogul — Barney Fein (cough, cough) — forcing himself on an attractive, aspiring actress in his lavish penthouse suite. It’s not just uncomfortable. It’s altogether unconscionable.

It comes as little surprise that Mamet sniffed this story’s scent. This is the man who wrote “Oleanna” and “Speed-the-Plow” — one a case of contested sexual harassment, the other a satire about Hollywood’s head honchos. At least, it’s the same man on paper. In practice, you’d never know. All the psychological warfare and the saber-toothed slang of those early classics has gone to rot. “Bitter Wheat” is as flaccid as a deflated balloon: a half-assed amalgamation of an attempted sexual assault, regurgitated from reports and rumors, served up as a sloppy, second-rate farce. It tells us nothing we’d not already gleaned. It’s neither daring nor disturbing. It’s cheap, it’s nasty and it’s unimaginative. Had a hundred years passed, it would still be too soon.

Mamet spins a repellent reality into a tawdry sitcom. Superproducer Barney is the mafia don of movie-making, wealthy and vituperative enough to hold absolute sway. His word is gospel, his grudges hold fast and his money makes things happen his way. “I care about critical acceptance and awards,” he intones. “That is why I buy them.” He has, in essence, hacked Hollywood. Whatever flick he peddles, whatever crap he commits to celluloid, it sells. He lies to the world and the world lies back — not least his longstanding, long-suffering PA-cum-fixer (Doon Mackichan). Life, for Barney Fein, has lost its meaning.

It’s why Malkovich plays him not as a monster, but as morose — bored out of his brains. He talks in a monotone drone and hauls his bulk out of leather chairs. Sex is something different, especially for a man as repulsive as this. So when he sets his sights on British-Korean actress and Cambridge grad Yung Kim Li (Ioanna Kimbrook), who’s flown in to meet him, it’s as if he comes alive at an actual challenge, even at the prospect of an almighty transgression. He gets his kicks from knowing his victim cannot say no. He circles her like a spider ensnaring its prey, bamboozles her with non sequiturs, whisks her upstairs without offering an escape. He offers her food then repeatedly ignores or overrides her order. It’s all-out powerplay, a gradual assertion of domination, until he finally makes her an offer she can’t refuse. It is deeply uncomfortable to watch the trap being laid.

But then you clock what exactly you’re watching — a dramatist’s skillful appropriation of someone else’s experience of sexual assault — and it’s uncomfortable in all the wrong ways. The more carefully Mamet teases out Fein’s predatory tactics, his ability to hide in plain sight and get his way, the queasier it feels to participate in watching — and not in a way that accuses its audience for eating this up as entertainment. Mamet’s having too much fun for that.

Indeed, none of his characters are psychologically credible, and the plot creaks with convenient fire alarms and useful idiots. It’s lazy, and that’s before Mamet gives up on a short second half that piles on a bonfire of improbabilities: a dead mother, a wannabe-writer cop and a Syrian terrorist turn up in super-quick succession. If the aim, all of a sudden, is to lampoon, it rings mighty hollow. You can’t send someone up after trying to pin them down. Mamet’s stuck between demonizing, empathizing and satirizing Weinstein. Instead, he ends up exploiting the experiences of assault survivors for entertainment. The end can’t come soon enough.

West End Review: John Malkovich in David Mamet’s ‘Bitter Wheat’

Garrick Theatre, London; 732 seats; £125 ($160) top. Opened, reviewed June 19, 2019. Running time: 1 HOURS 50 MINUTES

  • Production: A Jeffrey Richards, Steve Traxler, Smith and Brant Theatricals production of a play in two acts by David Mamet.
  • Crew: Directed by David Mamet; Set and costume design, Christopher Oram; lighting, Neil Austin.
  • Cast: Alexander Arnold, Teddy Kempner, Ioanna Kimbrook, Doon Mackichan, John Malkovich, Matthew Pidgeon, Zephryn Taitte.
  • Music By: