One can only imagine how many lawyers were employed to go through David Mamet’s script for Bitter Wheat.
The American playwright’s much anticipated new work, coming in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal and the #MeToo movement, casts John Malkovich as a monstrous Hollywood movie mogul named Barney Fein.
As the programme points out – next to a photo of a Malkovich in character gripping a golden statuette – this is a work of fiction and any resemblance to events or persons, living or dead, “is entirely coincidental”.
Malkovich is undeniably superb as the foul-mouthed Fein, who we first see trashing a writer’s screenplay while he lolls in a chair with one leg looped over the armrest. He’s instantly established as an abusive, manipulative maniac, with a colourful turn of phrase (and a golden table lamp that appears to be fashioned out of an AK-47). “The Writers’ Guild would drink a beaker of my own mucus if I asked them too,” Fein assures the hapless scribe who has threatened to report him.
While Malkovich dominates the proceedings, the most interesting character proves to be Doon Mackichan’s Sondra, Fein’s long-serving PA. She’s the one knows everything, and who has helped facilitate his behaviour. Mackichan invests her with the calmness and inner strength of someone who has had to adapt to survive. If only we could have seen more of her story.
Fein is at his most abhorrent in the scene in a hotel room where he creepily attempts to get a young Korean actress Yung Kim Li (Ioanna Kimbrook), to whom he has promised fame and fortune, to watch him shower and masturbate.
Yes, it’s uncomfortable to watch but what’s the play telling us that we don’t know already?
After the interval the story falls apart, (spoiler alert) much like Fein’s empire. Mamet, who also directs, lets the menace of the first half give way to the farcical sight of the heavily padded Malkovich rolling on his back unable to get up. A repeated joke about Fein’s mother quickly wears thin. Yung is given little to do and it feels like there could have been so much more to explore with the character of Sondra.
Bitter Wheat’s conclusion feels rushed and leaves a bitter taste. At least there’s no Hollywood ending.
Bitter Wheat is at the Garrick Theatre until 21 September