Review: BITTER WHEAT (London, England)

by Lynn on July 8, 2019

in The Passionate Playgoer


At the Garrick Theatre, London, Eng.

Written and directed by David Mamet

Designed by Christopher Oram

Lighting by Neil Austin

Cast: Alexander Arnold

Teddy Kempner

Ionna Kimbook

Doon Mackichan

John Malkovich

Matthew Pidgeon

Zephryn Taitte

Dreadful and irrelevant.

 The Story. A day in the life of Barney Fein– a hot-shot Hollywood film producer.  He begins by chewing out a writer for writing a terrible script and then refuses to pay him the agreed upon fee of $200,000 because the work is terrible. Then he spends a lot of time trying to coerce an actress, Yung Kim Li, to his hotel room so he can have his sexual way with her. She has submitted a screenplay to him to produce but he will do it only if she has sex with him. He says he can make her a star in exchange for the sex stuff.

Much of the play is Fein trying to deal with all manner of complications: his mother is sick and doesn’t like him; he thinks people don’t like him because he’s fat and he can’t help it because it’s glandular; his film business is a money-laundering enterprise with money from countries and other sources investing in his films to cleanse their dirty money; the actress is charging him with sexual assault; and his mother dies, breaks up the company and leaves him nothing.

I’ve given away all the spoilers because I need to show how ridiculous the play is and besides you are not going to see it.

The Production. We are in Barney Fein’s office. Christopher Oram has created a stylish, modern office of big leather chairs, a desk with little on it, and no sign of any awards even though the script says there is a wall somewhere that has plaques and citations etc. Part of the office is a sunken sitting area you get down to by two steps.

Barney (John Malkovich) sits in one of the big leather chairs. He wears a black fat suit, that is to say, a black suit and white shirt that is obviously a fat suit to add lots of poundage to the slim Malkovich. He is talking to a meek man standing two steps up, clutching his shoulder satchel. The man is The Writer (Matthew Pidgeon, Mamet’s brother-in-law) and is being pilloried with invective about the screenplay he has written for Barney and which Barney calls ‘a piece of shit.’ Malkovich is in his element here. Mamet’s bristling words pour out in an almost stream of consciousness gush, delivered in Malkovich’s colourless whine of a voice with little inflection. It’s as if Barney is always talking explaining a scheme or coming up with another thought that just occurred to him, be it a string of insults, or a wild idea for a film, or another scheme to get a woman up to his room to take advantage of her.

Malkovich’s arms flip out and his hands flutter in the direction of the person being ‘talked to’ as if to get their attention. How could one not be paying attention to such a torrent of invective? In any case this hand fluttering is a trait of Malkovich’s acting. He does it to every character he talks to. He did it almost 30 years ago when I saw him in London in Burn This—arms jut out, hands flutter, flutter, flutter.

The Writer meekly says that Barney owes him $200,000 for the work and Barney counters that he would be paid when the work was acceptable. The Writer says he will sue and Barney says he will have him tied up in court for 15 years.

Barney says he knows shit when he sees it and quality when he sees it.  Why? Because his ability to see quality has afforded him the ability to buy five houses. Barney’s success is equated with money. As an afterthought he has a wall of citations and plaques, and presumably all sorts of other awards for his films that prove he knows quality when he sees it. The Writer slinks off defeated.

The Writer is just one in a group of surrounding characters who seem lifeless hangers on in Barney’s world. David Mamet directs Matthew Pigeon as The Writer (he isn’t important enough to have a name) to stand there stalk still, a terrified target, and to give his lines in a droning whimper  Because other characters (Doctor Wald who gives Barney his various medications for sexual performance, Roberto, some kind of assistant and Charles Arthur Brown who has a script in which Barney is interested) speak in the same dispassionate way, I know that Mamet is directing them precisely in how to give the line readings.

After Barney dispatches The Writer he goes into overdrive with Yung Kim Li (a demur Ioanna Kimbook) in trying to get her into bed, or at least a compromising sexual situation. She has a script and he has indicated to her he wants to produce it. He says he will make her a star. She is a Korean-British actress (writer) and will star in the film. All she has to do is give him sexual favours. After a ‘delicate’ cat and mouse game of getting Yung Kim Li up to his room, and his assistant and other hangers on conveniently leave, she is trapped. We don’t see him sexually assaulting her. We hear about it after he has been released from jail.

When Barney does have Yung Kim Li where he wants her—in his hotel room—Mamet’s direction is rather gripping. She wants to escape. We want her to escape. How will it end?

There is also a comment that one of his investors will give him money to produce the film if Barney can get Yung Kim Li to sleep with him. (Shall I pause now for us to go off to our respective homes to take a shower?)

Keeping Barney on schedule is Sondra (Doon Mackichan) his personal assistant. Ms Mackichan is dressed in black, is accommodating without fanfare and knows everything about Barney’s shady doings and his despicable behaviour without comment or conscience. She is an enabler as are the others. Her dialogue is given in an even, uninflected voice without reaction. Perhaps the only indication that she has any ‘attitude’ about Barney’s behaviour is the frequent looks/stares she gives him with the subtlest of pauses when he makes a despicable comment about something.

In the end when Barney is left with nothing, not even his company (it was his mother’s and she died during the play and left it to others), Sondra announces that she is going home. There isn’t a company anymore and so she is leaving to go home. She doesn’t have any other comment. Her leaving to fend for herself is all that is needed.

I’m always intrigued when a slim actor wears a fat suit to portray a character. How then does that actor act? Do they act like a fat person would or do they act like a slim person in a fat suit? A fat person doesn’t move very often I’ve observed because it’s too tiring. Yet there is Malkovich flitting around the large set, up and down the stairs of the sunken sitting room; getting in and out of the chairs with effort, even sitting on the steps leading down to the sunken seating area, which left me wide—eyed with disbelief because in a thousand years a large character would not be able to get down or up with any kind of ease. But of course this effort of Barney rocking back and forth on the ground to give him momentum to get up, is supposed to be funny. Sigh. I saw it done much better and with more humour at my Stratford Festival with Geraint Wyn Davies as Falstaff in The Merry Wives of Windsor recently, but I digress.

Comment. The programme states: “This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or person, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.”  So any similarity to the actions, behaviour, accusations, people surrounding disgraced Hollywood mogul, Harvey Weinstein, who enabled his behaviour and the exhaustive media coverage are purely coincidental? And I’m the Queen of Romania.

Ok, I can appreciate that catch all phrase in the programme protects the playwright from slanderous, libelous accusations. Barney is echoing the behaviour and actions of Weinstein almost to a ‘T’. In Bitter Wheat Barney is surrounded by ‘yes’ people who acquiesce to his despicable behaviour. Sondra, his dutiful personal assistant, knows his intentions when he wants to bed any woman and is there to help arrange it. She arranges for the doctor to give him his drugs and sexual performance enhancers. She’s there for the money laundering—Barney says that he gets investors from countries who want their money ‘laundered’ so they invest in his films. She knows everything. Money enables bad behaviour.

Michael Coveney writes in his programme note that “Mamet doesn’t condone or condemn. He writes the problem and exposes flaws in arguments and humanity as only theatre, perhaps, can.’ He also writes that Mamet has a ‘penchant for playing devil’s advocate in the court of public opinion.’ An interview with both Doon Mackichan and Ioanna Kimbook state that Mamet said the play “was not about rape—it’s an examination of power and how power is abused within that industry.” But hasn’t Mamet examined power before in his examination/dissecting of Hollywood in Speed-the-Plow? Hasn’t he always examined the abuse of power in all his plays? It seems to me that Mamet always celebrates the powerful overcoming the weak without condemnation.

So what happened here with Bitter Wheat? The flaws, information, behaviour and the problems regarding this situation with Barney Fein/Harvey Weinstein, his enablers and victims have all been hashed and rehashed, revealed and examined in the various media both print and social. There is nothing new that is said in the play. There is no devil’s advocate comment here in the court of public opinion. There is no other way of thinking about the flawed, hideous character known as Barney Fein. So besides being dreadful in its spin and sloppy writing, the play is irrelevant.

So why write this play? I’m mystified at the point. Mamet has not revealed an argument either way. He has written a character who is without moral compass or conscience about right or wrong, only that if he wants something then all is fair game to get it. He believes people/women don’t like him because he’s fat and it’s glandular not because he’s a glutton. He fluctuates between being in complete control and confident of his actions and whining because he’s not understood. The latter is just another way of avoiding responsibility of his actions. Is the point of the play that finally Barney gets his comeuppance? Really?  Does he? Is the point of the play then that now all will be great for women in any workplace run by men? Really? You’re kidding me, right?

Also in the programme is an essay about the vulgar, belligerent, distasteful men who created Hollywood and perpetuated this behaviour over the years. Harvey Weinstein seems to be the person who is finally caught and accused (for the time being) suggesting matters will change.

In her programme interview Doon Mackichan says that in a career of 30 years she has been subjected to sexual harassment and lost jobs because she questioned nude scenes and other matters that she found distasteful.

And for Bitter Wheat she says: “The lesson we’ve had from Mr. Mamet is to not comment. And in not commenting, the play swells in the depravity of the male protagonist and what these women have put up with—and continue to put up with in the culture that has allowed this behaviour to thrive for so long. It’s almost the end of the movie mogul era, so now maybe we can tell some different stories and hear from more female writers and directors. This play will open up discussions—and that’s what theatre should do.”

In your dreams Ms Mackichan, in your dreams.

Began: June 7, 2019.

Closes: September 21, 2019.

Running Time: 2 hours, 15 minutes. Approx.

Leave a Comment

Respectful comments are accepted on this site as long as they are accompanied by a verifiable name and a verifiable e-mail address. Posts that are slanderous, libelous or personally derogatory will not be approved.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

1 Brian July 11, 2019 at 3:45 pm

How the mighty have fallen. David, not Harvey.