The Theatreguide.London Review
Garrick Theatre Summer 2019
David Mamet has written
an engaging black comedy that is both timeless and timely and that,
not incidentally, provides a whopping great role for a fun-to-watch
That it also provides
some insight into the thinking of
power-seeking and power-abusing men is a bonus, and one unsurprising
from this American chronicler of male egos.
John Malkovich plays
Barney Fein, a Hollywood producer who, in the tradition of film
executives since the Golden Age, is a monster, one of his many sins
being the inclination to sleep with any attractive young woman who
passes his way.
In Bitter Wheat we watch
him move on a young Vietnamese actress who unexpectedly resists his dubious charms and more evident
power to help or harm her career, and his reaction to the discovery
that the game of sexual exploitation may be changing.
notice in the Garrick Theatre lobby warns that some may find the
scenes of sexual harassment disturbing, the emphasis is on comedy, as
the woman's resistance drives Barney to ever more frantic switching
of tactics, from oily seduction through appeals for pity and open
threats to raw begging.
And – small spoiler
alert – while her
going public with the story threatens to destroy Barney's career,
Mamet shows an unrepentant energy in the man that suggests that he
will somehow survive.
The play's major
insight, which comes with
typical Mamet indirection and subtlety, is that men like Barney are
not so much actively evil as playing by rules they don't realise have
The Hollywood producer,
like similar men of power in other
fields, simply assumes that sexual favours are among the perks of the
job, like exploiting employees, humiliating underlings and accepting
awards as Humanitarian Of The Year.
(Any resemblance to
American Presidents or likely future Prime Ministers may or may not
Just as he showed us in
Glengarry Glen Ross that
cut-throat competition was inescapable in the world of selling, and
in Oleanna that those innocent of sexism might be guilty of classism,
Mamet finds an odd sort of innocence to Barney's monstrousness that
exposes a cultural malaise larger than the individual's sins.
playwright Mamet and actor John Malkovich came out of the Chicago
theatre scene in the 1970s, so it is a bit of a surprise that they've
never worked together before.
sympathetic connection to the Mamet sensibility and a mastery of that
special mix of unforced eloquence, casual obscenity and almost poetic
speech rhythms that make up Mamet-speak, the playwright's instantly
recognisable heightened dialect.
After years of playing
eccentrics and villains, Malkovich is also unafraid to go over the
top, revelling equally in the character's larger-than-life nastiness
With Mamet himself
directing, the rest of the
cast are reduced to supporting roles, even Ioanna Kimbook as the
actress playing a quiet dignity and strength that never threaten to
steal the spotlight.
There is never any question of who the play is about and who is the star, and both the character and the actor are fascinating, entertaining and just plain fun to watch.
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