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Review: BITTER WHEAT, Garrick Theatre

Bitter WheatWhen David Mamet's new play was announced back in January, it was met with more than a few raised eyebrows. Bitter Wheat is a comedy about movie mogul Barney Fein, a man who bears more than a passing resemblance to disgraced producer Harvey Weinstein, and sees John Malkovich make a return to the London stage. The question is, should Mamet be the one to tell this kind of story at this juncture? Do we really need another male perspective on the subject?

Bitter WheatThe answer, in my opinion, is no - not really. Not yet, anyway. Various sources in the programme make a big deal about Mamet not passing comments on the stories he puts on the stage, which is all well and good, but I'm not sure how useful or effective that is here; if the idea is to make it into a talking point, that's not really necessary as far as the #MeToo movement is concerned - it's been a talking point since the allegations against Weinstein first came out in October 2017.

You can't help but think that a female voice on the subject would be more appropriate; Liv Warden's Anomaly earlier this year, for example, explored the effects that the uncovering of this kind of predatory behaviour had on the mogul's daughters - a fresh and unexpected perspective told with great focus. By contrast, Bitter Wheat lacks clarity and intent.

By the end it becomes a farce, Fein's undoing being his apparent inability to remember a single detail about anything he's told - be it the title of the film Yung Kim Li is coming to talk to him about, or whether his mother is still alive. His views on illegal immigrants are rather at odds with the rest of his personality, and there are moments where you wonder if you're being asked to feel sorry for him.

However, we all know that the behaviour demonstrated by Fein is odious - yet the comedy, more often than not, wills us to laugh with Barney, making us complicit in his actions. It's true that theatre has various functions - it's not just there to entertain - but two hours spent cringing and feeling uncomfortable maybe pushes too far in the other direction (especially for the kind of ticket prices available). The show's star may believe that "upsetting people is the point of theatre", but I wholeheartedly disagree.

A passable performance from Malkovich cannot save this play, or make it into something it's not. His monotone delivery is mildly irritating, and whoever thought the 'beached whale' visual gag was a good idea (Malkovich is decked out in a Fat Controller-esque fat suit) rather misjudged things.

Doon Mackichan provides a bit of light relief as Barney's long-term PA Sondra, and Ioanna Kimbook displays a delicate balance of deer in headlights and inner strength as put-upon actress Yung Kim Li.

I'm not sure why there are two pauses in the first act when scene transitions have the potential to be really interesting; by bringing the curtain down and the lights slightly up, you're taken out of the world of the play. Christopher Oram's sets are quite expansive, but not intricate enough to make the pauses vital while they're rearranged.

Perhaps in a few years, once the Weinstein scandal has been fully dealt with through various legal systems and other alleged sexual predators face the same scrutiny, Bitter Wheat could be looked at again with fresh eyes and find its place in society. In the here and now, however, it cannot hope to do good - as has been the norm throughout history, women's voices are once again being drowned out by that of a man.

Bitter Wheat is at the Garrick Theatre until 21 September

Picture credit: Manuel Harlan

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