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John Malkovich in Bitter Wheat at Garrick Theatre, London – review round-up

John Malkovich in Bitter Wheat at the Garrick Theatre, London. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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Bitter Wheat is not a play about Harvey Weinstein. Absolutely not. David Mamet’s play is actually about Barney Fein, a manipulative movie mogul who harasses half of Hollywood and coerces young actors into performing sexual favours for him. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. Of course it is.

Mamet, famous for his whip-crack sharp dialogue in award-winning plays such as Glengarry Glen Ross and Speed-The-Plow, also directs, and has enlisted the assistance of Oscar-nominated Hollywood A-lister John Malkovich in the lead role. Malkovich is no stranger to these shores – he directed Good Canary at the Theatre Rose Kingston three years ago – but he hasn’t been seen on a West End stage in over 25 years.

Mamet’s play, which runs at the Garrick Theatre until mid-September, has already attracted a storm of scrutiny. Is it really necessary? Is it too soon? Is it Mamet’s story to tell? Isn’t this just naked profiteering on the back of a Hollywood scandal?

Will the critics come up with answers to these questions? Will Mamet and Malkovich make sense of a monster? Has the male-dominated #MeToo play we’ve all been dying for finally arrived?

Fergus Morgan rounds up the reviews.

Bitter Wheat – A Bitter Disappointment

John Malkovich, Ionna Kimbook and Doon Mackichan. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Mamet has attacked Hollywood before, most notably in 1988’s Speed-The-Plow, which received a Tony nomination for best play and has been revived regularly ever since. But if that was Mamet at his best, Bitter Wheat is Mamet at his worst, say the critics.

It is “not really a play at all but an unfocused and tawdry howl of anger” according to Sarah Crompton (WhatsOnStage, ★), “a hot mess of gauche plotting, unfinished ideas and sheer wrongheadedness” according to Alice Jones (iNews, ★★), and “a wonky piece of theatre that fails by a distance to meet the huge challenge it sets itself” according to Dominic Maxwell (Times, ★★).

“Bitter Wheat is a bitter disappointment – it doesn’t add enough to the subject and, while it courts controversy, there’s not enough to get the town talking,” concludes Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph, ★★).

“It’s diverting but unnecessary, adding to the sense of frustration that Mamet at his peak could and would have explored this affair to reach more complex conclusions,” agrees David Lister (Independent, ★★★). “Indeed, Bitter Wheat never fully reveals the psychological depths of this depraved character, nor the motivations of those around him who enabled such abuse of power.”

There are myriad problems: “the clumsiness of the satire” for Michael Billington (Guardian, ★★), the “threadbare” female roles for Jones, and “the overwhelming sense that this is a vehicle for pithy lines that don’t amount to a character” for Tim Bano (The Stage, ★).

“Bitter Wheat is a classic of lazy playwriting,” assesses Aleks Sierz (Arts Desk, ★). “Mamet follows a simple recipe, writing by numbers. And you could do this too. Here’s how: 1) Select a current controversy; 2) Read a couple of Sunday supplement articles about it; 3) Dredge your memory for some Tinseltown anecdotes; 3) Write a monologue. Add jokes.”

“Really, what is the point?,” asks Holly Williams (TimeOut, ★★). “Why stage this? I write with weariness, not anger. Because it’s all too tiresome and too predictable. Turns out, nope, we really didn’t need a Harvey Weinstein play, written by a man and from a male perspective. The whole thing leaves you feeling… grubby.”

Bitter Wheat – Being Barney Fein

John Malkovich. Photo: Tristram Kenton

While John Malkovich’s finest role – Pascal Sauvage in Johnny English – may have been largely forgotten, the idiosyncratic actor can still point to a sparkling CV of stage and screen performances, including that of Hercule Poirot in Sarah Phelps’ BBC mini-series The ABC Murders. How does he handle an altogether less likeable character?

A few critics think he’s actually quite excellent. “You expect him to be good, but he still astounds with quite how sharp and unyielding and calmly powerful a presence he is, and how totally he embodies his awful character, never mind the fat suit padding out his thin frame,” writes Maxwell, before adding that he’s still “not reason enough to see this half-cooked show”.

Others think Malkovich makes a mess of it. “Malkovich – obviously a brilliant actor – isn’t brilliant here,” writes Bano. “He delivers everything in an unceasing monotone, like someone is doing some drilling next door.”

“While Malkovich has shown in the past that he can humanise monsters, he can find little variety in a downright villain,” chimes Billington, while Williams writes that “Fein is a nasty piece of work all right – but Malkovich’s rantings are one-note, even monotonous.”

Most critics, though, despair at the waste of talent. He’s “one of the most charismatic and dangerous actors of his generation”, says Crompton, “but even he seems becalmed by the play’s sheer nothingness, its sense of thrashing around in search of a purpose”.

Malkovich supplies “a towering performance that conveys not just the vulgarity, the bullying, and the predatory nature of the movie mogul, but also the paranoia that helped to define Weinstein”, reckons Lister, but he definitely “deserved a more rounded and thought-provoking play”.

Bitter Wheat – Excellent performances, underwritten roles

Ionna Kimbook and Doon Mackichan. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Malkovich isn’t the only one on stage, though. Alongside him are Doon Mackichan, who plays Fein’s personal assistant, and Ionna Kimbook, making her debut as a young Kent-born Korean actor whom Fein sexually assaults on stage. They are both, several critics suggest, the best things about this production.

Mackichan has “by far the most interesting character in the play, one with hints of actual conflict and complexity”, writes Williams. “She nails a compelling mix of scorn and pragmatism.”

Her part as a “long-suffering secretary” may be “underwritten”, says Bano, but “her blankness, like she’s been eroded by all this shit, hints at something interesting: how so many people can be complicit”.

Kimbook, meanwhile, “does impressively well with a hollow and underwritten part” according to Bano, and shows exactly “the right resilience” according to Billington.

“There’s no Mamet rug-pulling here, she really is a resilient individual with real integrity,” writes Williams. “What Kimbook really conveys, quite brilliantly, is that bright, polite performance of disarming charm women have to do around intense, weird, old men – the softly-softly managing of a scary situation.”

Bitter Wheat – Is it any good?

John Malkovich. Photo: Manuel Harlan

No, no, no, no, no. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Bitter Wheat is not good at all. It’s clumsy, careless, and can’t hold a candle to Mamet’s more famous works, suggesting yet again that this Pulitzer Prize-winning writer’s best is behind him.

A few critics think Malkovich makes the best of it, but absolutely none think his performance is enough of a reason to buy a ticket. Mackichan and Kimbook are this production’s small saving graces.

One-star and two-star reviews abound. The most controversial play of the year, it turns out, is all so one of the worst. Quelle surprise.

Producer John Brant: ‘Yes, Bitter Wheat is controversial and won’t be to everyone’s taste, but that’s David Mamet’

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