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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Bitter Wheat
Garrick Theatre  Summer 2019

David Mamet has written an engaging black comedy that is both timeless and timely and that, not incidentally, provides a whopping great role for a fun-to-watch actor.

That it also provides some insight into the thinking of power-seeking and power-abusing men is a bonus, and one unsurprising from this American chronicler of male egos.

John Malkovich plays Barney Fein, a Hollywood producer who, in the tradition of film executives since the Golden Age, is a monster, one of his many sins being the inclination to sleep with any attractive young woman who passes his way.

In Bitter Wheat we watch him move on a young Vietnamese actress who unexpectedly resists his dubious charms and more evident power to help or harm her career, and his reaction to the discovery that the game of sexual exploitation may be changing.

Although a notice in the Garrick Theatre lobby warns that some may find the scenes of sexual harassment disturbing, the emphasis is on comedy, as the woman's resistance drives Barney to ever more frantic switching of tactics, from oily seduction through appeals for pity and open threats to raw begging.

And – small spoiler alert – while her going public with the story threatens to destroy Barney's career, Mamet shows an unrepentant energy in the man that suggests that he will somehow survive.

The play's major insight, which comes with typical Mamet indirection and subtlety, is that men like Barney are not so much actively evil as playing by rules they don't realise have changed.

The Hollywood producer, like similar men of power in other fields, simply assumes that sexual favours are among the perks of the job, like exploiting employees, humiliating underlings and accepting awards as Humanitarian Of The Year.

(Any resemblance to current American Presidents or likely future Prime Ministers may or may not be coincidental.)

Just as he showed us in Glengarry Glen Ross that cut-throat competition was inescapable in the world of selling, and in Oleanna that those innocent of sexism might be guilty of classism, Mamet finds an odd sort of innocence to Barney's monstrousness that exposes a cultural malaise larger than the individual's sins.

Both playwright Mamet and actor John Malkovich came out of the Chicago theatre scene in the 1970s, so it is a bit of a surprise that they've never worked together before.

Certainly Malkovich demonstrates a sympathetic connection to the Mamet sensibility and a mastery of that special mix of unforced eloquence, casual obscenity and almost poetic speech rhythms that make up Mamet-speak, the playwright's instantly recognisable heightened dialect.

After years of playing film eccentrics and villains, Malkovich is also unafraid to go over the top, revelling equally in the character's larger-than-life nastiness and ridiculousness.

With Mamet himself directing, the rest of the cast are reduced to supporting roles, even Ioanna Kimbook as the actress playing a quiet dignity and strength that never threaten to steal the spotlight.

There is never any question of who the play is about and who is the star, and both the character and the actor are fascinating, entertaining and just plain fun to watch.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -  Bitter Wheat  - Garrick Theatre 2019

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