David Mamet: Bitter Wheat, Garrick Theatre, London (Director: David Mamet)
By Sascha Krieger
Dvid Mamet is not only one of the world’s most popular and successful playwrights – as a prolific screenwriter with two Oscar nominations under his belt, he also possesses expert knowledge of the workings of the film industry. A play based on the #MeToo movement’s pivotal moment of the scandal involving Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein therefore carries with it an expectancy of exclusive insights and the sharp direct tone Mamet has become synonymous with. But there is also doubt, as Mamet’s own gender depictions have traditionally received some criticism. The world premiere of his latest play Bitter Wheat, directed by Mamet himself, meets – at least partly – all these expectations. His Weinstein is called Barney Fein, a vulgar, expletive-happy, larger than life brute, manipulative, persuasive, openly abusive. John Malkovich, that most physical of Hollywood actors, that expert in cynicism and leering threat, is his perfect embodiment. His heavy body does not inhabit the stage, it usurps it, conquers it, holds it hostage.
Malkovich plays Fein as a towering presence, an all-inclusive male ego that claims the right for himself to devour everyone and everything around him, the embodiment of white male privilege. He buys awards, blackmails and bribes, and ends up trying to rape a British-Korean actress after initially planning to use her to get the favour of someone he needs to get a „surprise award“. He is a sleazy and brutally open schemer who it is quite fun watching, especially as Malkovich holds back nothing. He exhibits all the disgusting vulgarity, the brutal coldness, the boundless self-pity, the growing confusion after his downfall, the ridiculousness of this man who thinks he can buy everything in a decidedly shameless way, no holds barred, everything on the table. This creates its problems as Fein dominates everything. This makes the abuse particularly uneasy. While managing to create an at times unbearably chilly atmosphere of menace and inescapability as well as allowing Ioanna Kimbook to hold her own, to remain a steady independent presence, the focus is clearly on Fein who, in Malkovich’s capable hands, cannot stop fascinating even and especially when he is most revolting.
Christopher Oram’s set provides an elegant though unobtrusive backdrop of rather faceless expensive (post)modernity, while most of the cast – with the exception of Fein’s steadfast though too one-dimensional female (!) collaborator Sandra (Doon Mackichan) – seems superfluous, none more so than young intern Roberto who despite Alexander Arnold’s best efforts in awkwardness, seems like an out-of-place comic relief ploy. As the tone is problematic, too. Mamet’s play veers uneasily between comedy, satire and serious drama, changing its course repeatedly before settling to comfortably in a kind of revenge comedy with a twist in the end. Intrigues, pettiness and even a terrorist plot muddy the waters and shift the focus from the serious issues at hand, with the victim even coming close to being an accomplice in the end. The play and production thus suffer from a decidedly male point of view, with Mamet occasionally paying more attention to the hypocrisy of the Hollywood liberal – Fein even defends the antisemitic killer who murdered his mother – and the ridiculousness of the aging male ego – Fein is obsessed with being fat and ugly and almost drowns in self-pity – than to the alleged topic of the play.
Therefore, while providing a precise, sharply satirical portrayal of the straight white male power animal at the heart of the #MeToo debate, the prototypical propagator of abuse, sexism and sexual exploitation, Bitter Wheat does not care much about the systemic nature of what’s depicted, belittling actor and act through ridiculing them with plenty of comedic set-pieces. Thus, the play drifts into thhe well tested waters of Hollywood satire combined with a fall of hubris style farce. The male gaze is all important, the male flaws and fate and ridiculousness all important, the woman all but forgitten or at best a bit player. While not unrealistic, this male-centred take on the #MeToo debate and systemic sexual abuse in partriarchal environments leaves a bitter taste in this reviewer’s mouth. As it should.