It became known as the ‘Weinstein effect’; when allegations of sexual assault were made against a Hollywood mogul in 2017 it precipitated the #MeToo movement, and saw powerful men swiftly removed from the pedestals on which they had previously perched. David Mamet’s new play, Bitter Wheat, which unusually premieres in London at The Garrick Theatre, certainly doesn’t shy away from where it found its inspiration.
Directed by the playwright himself, it has already courted controversy, with an almost endless queue of people waiting to hate it before the curtain went up on the first preview. It’s not surprising given that Mamet has chosen to turn such a profoundly shocking real-life scandal in to a farce.
Bitter Wheat is more about power, and the consequences of abuse of that power, but still it makes for uncomfortable viewing at times. The bloated and depraved Hollywood producer in this story is Barney Fein, and from the opening sentence we know he is a bully, and a powerful one. His ability to make or break careers is laid out explicitly, and assistant Sondra seems to be the only person who can get away with any kind of challenge.
The arrival of Yung Kim Li, an actress whom Fein has already promised to an awards judge, sets in motion a chain of events that will destroy the lives of everyone involved. Because, when Fein’s plans fall through, he decides to take the actress for himself, ordering his staff to prepare for ‘the usual’.
This transpires to be a deeply disturbing form of manipulation, leading to a sexual assault as the actress sleeps. Mamet cleverly draws this out in real time, and the first act is filled with examples of excellent writing, but the irreconcilable difficulty is that we all know what happens next.
The first act is interrupted by long scene changes which impact the flow, Christopher Oram’s set designs are nice, but not enough to warrant such long pauses. The second act requires only one set, but by now Bitter Wheat has moved fully in to the realm of farce, managing to land only easy gags rather than a serious message.
Unsurprisingly, John Malkovich gives an outstanding performance as Barney Fein, although the monotone delivery does start to grate, especially as so much of the play is Fein talking. Doon Mackichan and Ioanna Kimbrook do the best they can with the roles of Sondra and Yung Kim Li, but sometimes it just feels like no-one on stage actually wants to be there.
The other characters are essentially there for decoration, serving a purpose for only the few minutes they are on stage. It helps us to see them as Fein does, single-use commodities to be bought, or traded to serve his own needs, it’s wonderfully subtle but makes a big point. The opening scene gives us a glimpse of media manipulation and boardroom bust ups, but these don’t continue throughout the rest of the play.
Bitter Wheat doesn’t defend Fein, or his real life counter-part, but neither does it show him as the true monster he is. The theatre is a place where stories like this should be told (there were several fine examples of #MeToo inspired pieces at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe) but this one misses the mark in too many ways.
It’s not the story being told, or even the person telling the story that’s the issue, it’s that it lacks any kind of challenge to the audience, and the instances of clever writing are drowned out. Where Bitter Wheat should have had so much to say, it manages to spend two hours saying very little at all.