While I may not be a London critic, it’s difficult to be a theatre enthusiast with a twitter account without having heard of “Bitter Wheat”. Months before the David Mamet play made its world premiere at the Garrick theatre, the black comedy starring John Malkovich in a fat suit as a Harvey Weinstein figure had received a hefty amount of backlash. Some felt it was too soon after the #MeToo movement to be dabbling in black comedy. It was also accused of hijacking a narrative of sexual abuse that ought to belong to the survivors, rather than the male perpetrator.
Fortunately, because I am not a London critic, it was quite easy to avoid catching the same feeling of early resentment. I attended the performance with an entirely open mind, being a fan of black comedy and prepared to see how one of the most hated men in recent memory would be portrayed. It is worth saying that, while the character is clearly modelled on Weinstein (with a few Trumpisms thrown in for good measure) it is not his story. Rather, it is an imagined view into the life of a despicable movie producer; a caricatured manifestation of what we imagine these men to be like.
One might expect a jam-packed plot with intertwining elements, and it certainly comes off as though that was the intention. Instead, it is a meandering, twisted box-ticking exercise in vileness. That’s not to say it’s offensive. To call it offensive would be to give it the satisfaction of being “shocking” and “anti-PC”, words which sell more tickets than “moving” or “insightful” ever could. It tries so hard to provoke and actually comes off as rather tame. One never truly feels a sense of dread when he watches a young female filmmaker like a crocodile watches a bird, or feel any kind of rage when he ruins someone’s career, or discomfort when he recycles tired racial stereotypes. It’s just what we expect and nothing more.
Malkovich has most of the lines, and all the supporting characters merely react to him. It doesn’t make for a compelling character study, it makes for an irritating one that bends the suspension of disbelief to breaking point. This is not how people interact with each other, and it doesn’t allow for any great insight into the character himself. Ioanna Kimbook is endearing and believable as filmmaker Yung Kim Li, presenting both vulnerability and strength despite the few lines she has. Even so, if audience members are hoping for a strong female character to create a balance against the hefty weight of Malkovich’s Barney Fein, they will be disappointed.
To Mamet’s credit, the script does contain several funny, cutting, and clever quips and plot points. It’s just unfortunate that they are spoiled by their delivery. Malkovich is flat throughout. I don’t think anyone expected any sincerity from a character like his, but seeing him bumble around being unpleasant is neither enraging nor hilarious – it is just dull.
It is obvious that the greatest appeal of this show is the premise, and the half-baked execution doesn’t matter a jot. Ironically, the battle has already been won as soon as audiences have bought their tickets, like all of the films that Malkovich’s character produces. Regardless of whether it is too soon, or whether “upsetting people is the point of theatre” as Malkovich put it, “Bitter Wheat” offers very little in the way of entertainment of thought-provoking material. Two stars.
Whispers from the crowd:
“Fab, marvellous, really well written.”
“Fat! That’s the best way to describe it. Horning, or, what’s a word for exciting, but in a sexual way? Hot!”