Garrick Theatre (venue)
21 June 2019 (released)
24 June 2019
It’s bold to produce a farce about a Hollywood Moghul in the mould of Harvey Weinstein less than a year after the multiple allegations of sexual assault were made against him. But David Mamet has never been afraid of controversy and with John Malkovich starring (in a fat suit) there’s clearly going to be plenty of interest. Whilst it’s no surprise to find the crackle of Mamet’s wit from the off, ultimately 'Bitter Wheat' skates on the surface of the characters and subject matter; neither funny enough nor serious enough for such a weighty subject.
John Malkovich plays Hollywood Moghul, Barney Fein, pretty closely based on Harvey Weinstein. Malkovich cuts a pitiful figure as Barney, bumbling around in his fat suit, dripping with cynicism. Every vulgar, cruel, cynical utterance has been sharply observed from a world both Mamet and Malkovich know well and this is where the play shines. Of course, it was always going to be a risk taking on this subject in the current climate but the problem is not the light-hearted treatment of a contentious issue. It’s that the jokes run thin after the interval and the plot takes an unconvincing turn as it reaches it’s climax.
Why not write a play about an abusive, bigoted man reaching the end of his powers? He’s thoroughly flawed and has some slam-dunk offensive lines. But it doesn’t go deep enough, neither into the psychology of the man or the psychology of the women, despite an impressive performance by Doon Mackichan as his PA, Sondra whose controlled demeanour says so much about what is not being said.
Naturally Barney illicits no sympathy from the audience as he mewls, ‘I’m a victim too’ and unzips his flies for young actress, Yung Kim Li. But Yung Kim Li played with a light touch by newcomer, Ioanna Kimbook, never really seems at risk either, either physically or psychologically. Is this because he seems too old and weak or because she is presented as having all the power? Given the current climate, the affect is not only to diffuse any theatrical tension. It seems pointed to present a sexual assault where the woman is trapped in a room with a man who rather than being truly threatening, appears to holds no power over her even as he rants and bullies and threatens and whines. The impression is that it’s all too easy for Yung Kim Li to escape from his clutches. There are many witty moments and it’s a thrill to see John Malkovich close up but a post-Weinstein satire needs to dig deeper.