A CurtainUp London Review
Bitter Wheat, Mamet's satirical play, which he also directs, may be presented as a comedy but underlying the laughter is a shocking exposée of the abuse of power for sexual gratification. Young girls hoping for a film part are manipulated into choosing between vulnerably agreeing to the sexual demands of a disgusting, revolting man or to commit career suicide.
John Malkovich plays Barney Fein, a successful movie producer, his enormous girth courtesy of a fat suit overlaid with a oversized dark suit jacket. So this man has a huge physical presence as well as the dominance of his offensive language and bullying manner. We have to hope for those close to him that John Malkovich isn't a method actor.
Christopher Oram's set of Barney Fein's office too lacks subtlety with a copper, or it could have been rose gold, replica AK 47 forming the base of a lamp, both vulgar and menacing. We first see Fein with Sondra, his secretary, (Doon Mackichan) , who takes his orders professionally. With Sondra, Fein is calling in favours world-wide for award nominations and votes, finding out what people need and wheeler dealing to get them onside.
A writer (Matthew Pidgeon) has his screenplay thrown back at him with Fein refusing to pay the $200,000 which was contracted. By now we are in no doubt as to the nastiness of this man. Fein's rapid fire vituberation allows no room for the other man to speak.
A young, male intern is humiliated when he dares to correct Fein when he says that Belize is in South America rather than Central America and later Sondra has to dodge answers to Fein's questions as to her honest opinion. Sondra's character is interesting because it is certain that she has helped Fein set up situations where vulnerable young women are cornered.
Ioanna Kimbook plays Yung Kim Li, a young Eurasian actress whom Fein is trying to procure for his contact from Togo. She has arrived off a 27 hour flight and gone straight into a meeting with Fein in a private room in a Korean restaurant. She has been in a film Dark Water and Fein is proposing another part for her in truly dreadful sounding mish-mash of Gone With the Wind meets Anne Frank with a young Asian girl as the heroine. But, on the way to this "life changing" part are his needs for a neck rub, or a massage, or a blow job, or to wash him in the shower and watch him masturbate. He repeatedly ignores her needs to get her a meal and then orders her something she cannot eat.
Fein is not just sexually exploitative, he has racist and sexist ideas about young Asian girls and massage. He is bizarrely pro illegal immigrants. He fails to pick up on Yung Kim Li's explanation that she did some acting in C.U.D.S. while at the University of Cambridge, having been brought up in Kent. She has no ties to Korea and her father is a lecturer at the London School of Economics. He resorts to manipulatively seeking pity when he tells her that his excess weight is glandular and how people find him repulsive because of his weight.
The performances are good, although through no fault of his own but because of his celebrity, I maybe always felt I was seeing John Malkovich rather than the sex pest. He's also not as ugly as Weinstein although he does a good job of masking his own personal charisma.
The second act sees Fein's downfall as Yung Kim Li's complaint exposes a career of predatory behaviour. In a wonderful speech Doon Mackichan as Sondra lists off the sanctions and sackings of the once influential man. "I was a god," he says "like Napoleon, like Hitler."
There are times in Mamet's plays when you will cringe while others laugh and there are many such awkward moments in Bitter Wheat. Michael Coveney writes in the programme that the sexual proclivities of Hollywood movie tycoons have long dominated the casting of female roles. Perhaps ironically, the Harvey Weinstein affair, and Ashley Judd and the 80 brave women who have come forward, should be given credit for bringing this practice to an end and allowing young women and men to assert their right to fair auditions without fear of abuse or blacklisting.
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Written and directed by David Mamet
Starring: John Malkovich, Doon Mackichan, Yung Kim Li
With: Alexander Arnold, Teddy Kempner, Matthew Pidgeon, Zephryn Taitte
Design: Christopher Oram
Lighting Design: Neil Austin
Running time: Two hours including an interval
Box Office: 0330 333 4811
Booking to 21st September 2019
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 21st June 2019 evening performance at The Garrick Theatre, Charing Cross Road, London WC2H 0HH (Tube: Leicester Square)
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