Reviews West End & Central Published 20 June 2019

Review: Bitter Wheat at Garrick Theatre

7th June - 21st September

A bitter draft: Alice Saville reluctantly reviews David Mamet’s Weinstein play.

Alice Saville

John Malkovich in ‘Bitter Wheat’ at the Garrick Theatre. Photo: Manuel Harlan

Bitter Wheat review
It was boring. I didn’t like it.

Dear Alice,
Thanks for filing your review in good time (for once!). But I’m not sure the whole thing sent? If that is your entire response, I just wondered if you could flesh it out a little bit. Can you explain why it made you feel that way? Is ‘boring’ really the right word for a 90 minute work from one of the 20th century’s great playwrights, with John Malkovich making his long awaited return to the stage in the leading role?
Best wishes,
The Editor

Bitter Wheat review Draft #2
It was boring. I didn’t like it. My editor has asked me to expand on this response but I don’t see why I have to do edits when David Mamet clearly hasn’t. Why can’t I just toss off my opinions in whatever form I see fit, and then air them in front of a wide and surprisingly receptive audience, preferably one primed with quotes from the New York Times proclaiming my genius?

Dear Alice,
This is a fair point and it’s great to see your confidence in your writing improving. But I’m still not sure this is a response we can publish. Could you give a bit of context to your opinions? And some sense of the plot?
The Editor

Bitter Wheat review Draft #3
It was boring. I didn’t like it. It was just a mish-mash of vaguely comedic scenes about a thinly veiled version of Weinstein exploiting a young female actor, plus some ‘ironic’ racism and a bit where a terrorist showed up with a gun. The Weinstein guy is called ‘Barney Fein’, which insults my fingers in the typing. The marble floor is quite nice. The end.

Clearly you hated the show and that’s fine, but I need you to give readers some kind of sense of why. I’m not suggesting edits just to make your life harder; I really think a show that’s this high-profile really needs examining in more detail. Please send over a review that’s at least 400 words long, and gives the reader some kind of analysis of the play.
The Editor

Bitter Wheat review Draft #4
In an abuse of power, my editor is silencing my response to this show.

The Editor

Bitter Wheat review Draft #5
Barney Fein, the protagonist of Bitter Wheat, is an all-powerful movie mogul who threatens to destroy actor Yung Kim Li’s career if she doesn’t have sex with him. He traps her in his office, denies her food, continually misidentifies her as Chinese (she’s of Korean heritage, raised in Kent), bribes her with false promises of future stardom, and tries to force her to massage his shoulders, all the while threatening to kill the distribution of Dark Waters, the film she stars in.

Mamet shows a superficial level of interest in the mechanisms of power and manipulation. Fein explains that he’s the business equivalent of a wild game hunter, who finds out where the animals go to eat, and then shoots them. But a more apt metaphor would be a hawk tamer, who uses a combination of treats and deprivation to get a bird eating from his hand. He has a host of powerful allies who he sweetens with free tickets to the ballet, with internships for their children, or with sexual favours from actors who are under his control.

This is where the psychological insight ends. John Malkovich has a lot of fun with the role of Fein, a man whose dialogue loops in surreal circles, who barracks and wheedles the women around him, or tumbles around the floor like a malevolent teddy bear. But Mamet’s text only offers a comic summation of his operating methods, not a look at why he’s compelled to act the way he does. There’s not a chink of real feeling or vulnerability under all the bluster, which makes this play unsatisfyingly morally straightforward. Ioanna Kimbook’s performance as Yung Kim Li is strong; she quickly sees through Fein, and shows courage in the ways she stands up to and defies him. But what’s lacking is a real sense of how she feels, and Fein’s secretary Sondra (Doon Mackichan) is still more underwritten: she’s seemingly untroubled by her role in Fein’s abuses, lacking either real affection for him or any kind of underlying guilt. Mamet is writing about abuses of power, but there’s no point in doing so without showing their emotional impact – the layers of shame and fear and compulsion. There’s no sense of the degradation that an actor must feel when she spends her whole life dreaming and training for her career, only to see her future rest on her willingness to give a blowjob.

Pasting an easy target like Bitter Wheat could be fun, but honestly it just makes me feel weary. It didn’t make me feel angry or offended – just childishly fed up. It was boring. I didn’t like it.

It had this unbearable stench of waste emanating from its artfully painted marble floors, and wafting through its unpardonably long, elaborate scene changes. It was short, and it dragged. The whole thing feels like the mega high-budget, theatrical equivalent of clickbait: the producers presumably know that negative reviews can be styled out as ‘post #MeToo controversy’, and even then it’ll still shift more tickets than ten feminist plays.

At the end of Bitter Wheat, Yung Kim Li forgives Fein for assaulting her and ruining her career. She gives him a rhinestone-studded copy of his favourite guide to doing business. She’s the only one that understands him, he says. He tells her that he’ll make her a star, for real this time, once he’s out of jail and rehabilitated. It’s this glib, complacent conclusion that finally made me feel the frustration I’d been burying. How dare Mamet scrawl out an ending that’s basically a rip-off of The Producers, how dare he style Fein as an incorrigible, forgivable, comedy rogue who’ll go on working in showbiz until he’s cold and stiff in his suit?

The programme of Bitter Wheat features an interview with its two female actors, who talk glowingly about the creative process, and about working with David Mamet. It’s an ironic move. The whole point about industry abuses of power is that women can’t speak out against their employers for fear of losing their jobs. Although this discussion may well be the full and unvarnished truth of their feelings about Bitter Wheat, it’s hardly a frame in which they could offer any feminist criticisms. It’s typical of a play that feels consistently intellectually lazy. A provocation, given some vague and insubstantial feminist trappings on its journey to a stage and a West End that would be better off without it.

Are you happy now???

Alice – thanks for responding to my suggestions. I’ll look forward to your hot take transferring to the West End!! I’ve already sold the movie rights!!! Haha. Just joking. Still, at least you got a free glass of wine, eh?
The Editor

Bitter Wheat is on at the Garrick Theatre until 21st September. More info and tickets here


Alice Saville

Alice is editor of Exeunt, as well as working as a freelance arts journalist for publications including Time Out, Fest and Auditorium magazine. Follow her on Twitter @Raddington_B

Review: Bitter Wheat at Garrick Theatre Show Info

Directed by David Mamet

Written by David Mamet

Cast includes John Malkovich, Doon Mackichan, Ioanna Kimbook, Alexander Arnold, Teddy Kempner, Matthew Pidgeon, Zephryn Taitte



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