Last Updated on 20th June 2019
Julian Eaves reviews Bitter Wheat, a new play by David Mamet starring John Malkovich now playing at the Garrick Theatre, London.
This will be a great play, when it’s finished. At the moment, it’s a fairly rough draft of what could – in time – become a worthwhile and fascinating exploration of the Harvey Weinstein scandal (the Hollywood producer who was called out by umpteen different alleged victims of his sexual exploitation) and the #MeToo movement that ensued. (The programme advises us, ‘This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination of are used fictitiously’, etc. But only lawyers need pay any attention to that.) The author, David Mamet, who has written before, and very well, about the US movie industry, has had world premieres of his plays produced here, but they have usually been directed by other people – some of the finest directors in the world. Here, he chooses to do the directing himself, which is a mixed blessing with a play that has a great many flaws (characterisation, plotting, structure, to name but three fairly serious ones). Added to that, however, is the far more intractable difficulty of having a great big star in the lead – John Malkovich, making his return to the stage after 30 very, very long years – who, while eminently bankable, proves to be in his on-stage personality the polar opposite of the part that the writer has created. Another director might have been able to conceal some of these weaknesses, but Mamet – generously – allows us to see them all in the cold, harsh illumination of Neil Austin’s lighting design, spread out over Christopher Oram’s equally cool and austere retro-Bauhaus set (complete with Dadaist gold machine-gun lamp-stand).
Malkovich gives an always very thoughtful, intelligent, not to say intellectual performance, and fans will be pleased to hear that he is onstage for nearly the whole span of the play. Faced with a script for which he is temperamentally unsuited, and matched to a director who cannot instruct him how to avoid its dangers, he does what any actor in his position would do, he falls back on what he knows will work. Thus, having to play a driven, obsessive, bullying movie-maker, Malkovich looks into his past catalogue of such roles and finds… F.W.Murnau, who he played in the film, ‘Shadow of the Vampire’. The trouble with this solution is that Murnau and Weinstein (OK, OK… Fein) are hardly cut from the same cloth, and this characterisation takes us further away from where we should be, and not nearer to it. Despite all the creative care lavished upon the role by Malkovich, what we get from him is so utterly lacking in passion that we just cannot believe in his darkness, his earthiness, which makes a nonsense of the whole point of the exercise. What brought Weinstein down was his carnal desire, and if we can’t believe in that, then we don’t have a play.
Mind you, the same can be said for the way the entire script is written. We get a succession of scenes, each dominated by Fein, but accessorized with the appearance – lengthy or fleeting – of one of a number of figures constellated around him. Taken as a whole, it is often possible to surmise where these scenes are coming from, without ever being able to work out what common destination they are all meant to be heading to. That, perhaps, is something that Mamet will work out in the re-writes that will happen between now and Broadway. There is also some fun to be had in guessing who might be chosen to replace the famous and certainly very bankable star: my money is on Nathan Lane. As the script currently is, an actor like him would probably make a much better fist of it.
The rest of the cast fare slightly better, almost in inverse proportion to how much time they spend on stage. Doon Mackichan plays Fein’s secretary, Sondra, as a kind of more glamorous version of Birdie (Thelma Ritter, Bette Davis’ dresser and all-purpose cynical but trustworthy help-mate in ‘All About Eve’), with a good measure of Eve Arden (in almost any part she ever took) thrown in. The references to the Hollywood of long ago are apt, because this feels like a very old-fashioned play. Even the opening scene, with Matthew Pidgeon’s ‘writer’ being savaged by the rottweiler with keyhole surgery skills that is Malkovich’s ice-cold mogul, feels like it came from somewhere else. This is a pity, because it does contain some important’ish plot information that we ought to care about (but don’t).
Next in line is the corrupt medic of Teddy Kempner’s Doctor Wald, who dispenses two similarly bottled but radically different sets of pills to Fein, which look like they are going to be the seed of some farcical confusion, but then are not. The script keeps doing that: setting up conventions, which then the author apparently loses interest in exploring further. It’s irritating. We also get a walk-on, walk-off, walk-back-on, walk-back-off performance by Alexander Arnold’s only partially audible Roberto, an incompetent intern. Wherever the money is being spent in this production, it is obviously not on him. And then, muse to the catastrophe which should be the icing on a lovely West End cake of a show, there is Ioanna Kimbook’s gauche and clueless ingenue starlet, Yung Kim Li, a Korean with Kentish roots, all alone in Hollywood’s big bad wolf-land. She is starving, having unwisely refused all nourishment on a 27-hour flight prior to her debut in the movie capital of the world (one of the script’s legion plot holes), and she is forced to go on and on about this at this high-powered meeting, as if she could think of nothing better to say. In this, she resembles strongly the bimbo side-kick in, I think, the original ‘The League of Gentlemen’, who is constantly trying to get something to eat, and so humorously always – even at the last moment – failing. But, again, Mamet doesn’t make as tidy a job of the gag as has been done in the past. She then has to ‘come back to the scene of the crime’ in the second half, and I was at a loss to see any motivation for her doing so (was she still hungry?). As it is, this just seems to heap humiliation on top of disgrace.
Anyway, there it is. The return to the stage of John Malkovich. Make of it what you will.