By the far the most galling thing about David Mamet’s new play Bitter Wheat – and, believe me, there are many galling things about it – is how lazy it is and how, for want of a better phrase, tossed off it feels.
This is one of the first major plays to deal directly with the multiple allegations of sexual misconduct that brought Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein low. The play’s main character, movie producer Barney Fein, spends much of the first half pressuring a young woman to watch him masturbate or give him a massage.
Mamet has written some brutal dissections of American masculinity in the past. Glengarry Glen Ross is a magnificent example. He has also written about Hollywood monstrousness and venality, in plays such as Speed-the-Plow (though its sexual politics have not aged well at all).
It’s also worth noting that Weinstein’s Miramax produced Mamet’s 2001 directorial effort Heist, so he probably has some first-hand experience of the man and how he operates; an insider’s view could have proved interesting. But he brings nothing new to this conversation.
Instead his response to the tidal wave of revelations – and the resulting global movement of women hitting their limit in term of shit they were willing to take – is a sloppily constructed ‘farce’ that he also directs himself because, heaven forbid you would allow some female creative input in a project like this.
Bitter Wheat is two hours of John Malkovich shambling around in a fat suit. It’s a play that uses the prospect of assault as comedy fodder, and has been written with the blithe confidence of someone who has never been in a situation in which they have had to make a succession of micro-calculations in order to please a man, out of fear of what will happen to them should he become displeased.
As Holly Williams asks in her two-star review for Time Out: “What is the point? Why stage this?” Mamet never answers that question satisfactorily. Bitter Wheat offers neither critique nor insight, neither satire nor damnation. It never stops paddling in the psychological shallow end. It is the theatrical equivalent of those below-the-line commentators who like to shout “first” as if it were a badge of pride.
Producer Jon Brant, whose company is also behind the uplifting Come from Away, has said that producing theatre is about making money. But it’s profoundly hard to imagine anyone reading Bitter Wheat and thinking it is the take the world needs. Yet because it has Mamet’s name attached it was clearly deemed a good commercial prospect.
Doon Mackichan, who gives her thinly written role her all – as does Ioanna Kimbook as the young actor Fein sets his sights on – hit the nail on the head when she said in a recent interview: “Mamet is Mamet and he’s written it very quickly and he’s got a play on. It’s definitely the man’s story – but it looks at why he got away with it, how he operates: buying the critics, treating the writers like shit, bullying all his staff, hitting on young actresses. It’s about control and power. Yes, it would be great if a woman had written it. But she hasn’t.” That’s such a sad, telling statement.
Lyn Gardner has already written eloquently on why male writers shouldn’t be so quick to take ownership of this story. Bitter Wheat proves her right. There’s more at stake here than the success or failure of a comedy by a past-his-best playwright.
Mamet has placed a man at the centre of a story in which women’s careers and creativity were shut down and silenced. This stuff is as cyclical as it is cynical. It reinforces power dynamics on stage and off, pitting a fresh-out-of-drama-school actor against a Hollywood star. It feeds the machine it purports to criticise and contributes to a culture in which laughter is seen to be an acceptable response to this kind of behaviour. In so many ways, it’s a waste.
Natasha Tripney is The Stage’s reviews editor and joint lead critic. Read more of her columns and reviews at thestage.co.uk/author/natashathestage-co-uk/