David Mamet, thorn in the side of political correctness, is back in London with another play about a powerful man accused of sexually assaulting a vulnerable woman. Oleanna meets Speed-the-Plow, meets every other thing he’s ever done slightly better. Well, it’s good to have interests.
John Malkovich is Barney Fein, which sounds a bit like Harvey Weinstein. He’s a Hollywood producer with lots of money and power. He buys off all the critics who can give him awards. Oh, and he assaults young women.
Fein swears a lot and insults people. That’s problem one: the overwhelming sense that this is a vehicle for pithy lines that don’t amount to a character. Entertaining dialogue, empty of revelation. Problem two: Malkovich, a brilliant actor, isn’t brilliant here. He delivers everything in an unceasing monotone, like someone doing some drilling next door.
Mamet has several good reasons to be bitter about working in Hollywood – the underwhelming films Hannibal and The Postman Always Rings Twice, for which Mamet worked on the scripts, are two of them – and vitriol pours out of this flabby exercise in cynicism as if from the mouth of Mamet himself. Except, of course not: these are just characters, and Mamet is just playing devil’s advocate.
Fine, open up a debate if you want, but at least put a teeny bit of effort into any of the other characters. Ioanna Kimbook, in her stage debut as Fein’s young victim, does impressively well with a hollow and underwritten part. Plus, there’s good stuff from Doon Mackichan in an underwritten part as the long-suffering secretary. Her blankness, as if she’s been eroded by all this shit, hints at something interesting: how so many people can be complicit.
Questions of theme aside, this really isn’t anywhere near Mamet’s best. For one thing, he can’t find any other way to change scene than literally stop the show for a few minutes, twice, while a new set is rumbled on behind the safety curtain.
Then there’s the bafflingly implausible ending that seems to be the only moment of the play that lives up to its billing as a farce. But the ludicrousness comes so little and late that it makes no sense.
Towards the end the play, Mamet does find something to say: he shows that Fein and men like him, on account of being rich, white, influential and male, will always think they can get out of any situation, and Mamet takes that notion to its absurdist point.
But we don’t need this play to prove Mamet can write good dialogue, or to expose the deep-set rot of the Hollywood machine. Mamet’s cool, cynical detachment, with which he can take aim at the whole damn system, is pointless. It’s like arguing for both sides of a suppurating wound.
Maybe time will soften things and this will prove to be an acute deconstruction of masculinity and privilege and power. It would have just been nice if, at some point, any point, someone could have said: “Er, David, maybe it’s a bit too soon.”