Bitter Wheat at Garrick Theatre
Bitter Wheat, written and directed by David Mamet, is a play depicting depraved Hollywood tycoon Barney Fein (John Malkovich), a wicked studio head who takes us on a journey of money, sex and power. The production, showing resemblances to the story of Harvey Weinstein, rips the cover off Hollywood, confronting the harsh truths of show business.
Fein is renowned for his callous and ruthless approach to film production, spending his days harvesting scripts from desperate writers, buying them on the cheap and reaping the rewards for himself. In the process, our protagonist battles with his own self-loathing and takes advantage of those around him to better himself and satisfy his needs. This becomes apparent when Fein meets budding actress Yung Kim Li in private (Ioanna Kimbrook); his agenda is far from wanting to discuss financial matters.
This is Malkovich’s first theatre appearance after 33 years and his characterisation of the powerful businessman of Hollywood is captivating. He maintains control of the unforgiving flood of dialogue, whilst still showcasing more mental chaos than some of Shakespeare’s most complex characters. The actor has strong physical energy despite being weighed down by his costume, a “fat” bodysuit and clown-like large black shoes. Fein travels back and forth across the set, which is created interchangeably as either his office, a restaurant or hotel suite, matching his stream of consciousness – showing the audience his formulaic way of creating new film plots.
Kimbrook puts in a notable performance, directed insightfully by Mamet. She shows considerable character depth through the intimate scenes with Fein as he attempts to seduce her. As they relocate from restaurant to dimly lit hotel suite, she attempts to gain distance between herself and the predatory Fein. Kimbrook strikes the perfect balance between a woman intimidated by immense power and one confused by her own moral compass. This encounter is made all the more unnerving by the playwright’s choice to have no soundscape: this cleverly heightens the naturalistic style, but means the gravity of Fein’s shocking statements are heard loud and clear.
Mamet has chosen to focus on Fein, showing his tremendous fall to shame as the plot thickens. Though justified, this method means that the other supporting characters are not as fully developed in terms of a journey – despite their best efforts – ultimately leaving the overall story arc unbalanced. Moreover, the plot towards the end of the play seems to lack purpose, meaning what could have been a climactic ending is lost.
This said, Mamet holds up a mirror to the Hollywood lifestyle, leaving the audience with prickling self-awareness of right and wrong, achieved through a raw script laid bare and a commanding lead performance.
Photo: Manuel Harlan
Bitter Wheat is at Garrick Theatre from 7th June until 14th September 2019. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.