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Richard Jordan: To confound the critics, Mamet’s Bitter Wheat must be exceptional and necessary

John Malkovich in rehearsal for Bitter Wheat. Photo: Helen Maybanks
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David Mamet’s controversial new play Bitter Wheat began previews last Friday at the Garrick Theatre. When it was announced, this work described as a “black farce” about a depraved Hollywood mogul, tended to attract one of two adjectives in response: “brave” or “stupid”.

The marketing copy claims the play “rips the pashmina off the suppurating wound which is showbusiness, and leaves us better human beings, and fitter to once more confront the horror of life”.

Apparently it will be “funnier than The Iceman Cometh – more chaos than Richard III, and without all the stupid, so called ‘poetry’”. The show’s subject matter and deliberate tongue-in-cheek marketing approach has understandably made some people bristle in the aftermath of #MeToo.

Bitter Wheat was always going to be divisive. But what’s been interesting to observe is how commentators have expressed their disgust before having either read or watched it.

In a recent The Stage column, Lyn Gardner pointedly remarked how “women own this story” and plays depicting the point of view of male villains are simply not acceptable post-#MeToo. Her words powerfully captured the mood of just how raw and heated this issue remains, though it does raise uncomfortable questions about whether limits should be put on writers depending on the subject.

Lyn Gardner: Back off, Berkoff (and Mamet) – women own the #MeToo story

As a result, Bitter Wheat has attracted an advance press coverage that few new plays ever hope to achieve today. However, it has also developed a notoriety that could actually prove to be its undoing in the response from critics and audiences.

The problem for many with Bitter Wheat seems to be Mamet himself. His hit plays, such as Glengarry Glen Ross or Speed the Plow, often conjure the image of archetypal male chauvinistic pigs in the minds of his detractors.

Combine that with the show’s jokey marketing copy and some will feel that neither Mamet nor his producers are taking this subject seriously – although there is an argument that Mamet’s personal experiences of working in Hollywood, and the disdain he’s expressed about the industry – in work like his 1997 film Wag the Dog and 2007 book Bambi vs Godzilla – makes him an understandable choice to write a play about it.

Mamet stepped into similar challenging territory before with his critically acclaimed 1992 play Oleanna, set in a US university. In it, a student accuses her professor of sexism and harassment – although as Gardner rightly observes, it’s a play that can feel very one-sided.

But 27 years since its world premiere at American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and then a year later at London’s Royal Court Theatre, it still remains a popular choice for revival and with actors. In early 2019 Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia produced a new production, while a revival in Hebrew is currently playing a sellout run at Tel Aviv’s prestigious Cameri Theatre. However, given the current questions around Bitter Wheat, if Oleanna had landed on a producing theatre’s doormat today, would the decision ever be taken to produce it? Especially a subsidised one like the Royal Court?

Mamet may certainly be brave (or stupid) to take on this subject matter which, if he badly misjudges it, will not be forgiven. But he also desperately needs a hit. The West End getting the world premiere of a new play written and directed by Mamet starring John Malkovich, who is returning to the London stage after a 27-year absence, is an event.

However, the decision taken by Mamet’s long-time lead producer Jeffrey Richards to open in London instead of New York is a tactical one. Mamet cannot afford another Broadway disaster like his last two new plays: China Doll and The Anarchist which, despite their respective star power of Al Pacino, Patti LuPone, and Debra Winger, tanked. Even with the challenge of a much shorter preview period, a failure in London is still cheaper and easier to bury than on Broadway.

But many people’s minds are already made up about Bitter Wheat before even watching it. There is another divisive question: should this really have been the first main-stage #Metoo play to have walked straight into the West End?

Whatever your views on of Mamet, as with any playwright, a new work needs to be seen before we can make a coherent and considered judgement on it.

Everything’s now resting on Mamet’s shoulders to convince audiences and critics that Bitter Wheat has genuine validity. To have any chance of doing that, it’s simply not enough for the play to be good – Bitter Wheat has to be both exceptional and necessary.

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