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Stage review: ‘A play of moral vacuity’

Ioanna Kimbook and John Malkovich during the production shots of West End play Bitter Wheat, starring John Malkovich, at the Garrick Theatre, London. PA Wire/PA Images - Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

TIM WALKER reviews Bitter Wheat at Garrick Theatre

One imagines Harvey Weinstein must be flattered that John Malkovich should now be playing a character so obviously inspired by him on the London stage. Sure, he would probably have preferred it if the star hadn’t felt the need to don a fat suit, but, other than that, it’s hard to see what grounds he could possibly have for complaint.

Arrogant man that he is, he would certainly love it that the character dominates the play, that he is the one who gets to deliver all the funny lines, and, perhaps even better from his point of view, his one female victim should be quite so sketchily drawn and afforded no real opportunity to show how his repulsive behaviour impacted on her life.

How Weinstein would have loved, above all, to have heard the peculiarly insensitive first night audience guffawing at the show. Forget about the whole Me Too movement: Weinstein’s sense of droit du seigneur is now apparently deemed to be a laughing matter.

Had anyone but David Mamet written Bitter Wheat, it would rightly have ended up in the bin. I doubt anyone else but him would have been willing to direct it. It is a work that is not merely boring, slow, obvious, unsubtle, insensitive and with nothing new to say, but it is also morally vacuous.

Malkovich plays the part of the predatory movie producer Barney Fein as a comedic figure – at one point he lies on the floor like an upturned beetle, unable to get up – and it’s supposedly a matter of mirth that the medicine he takes to address his impotence requires precise timing and a calculation on his part whether his prey will eventually succumb to his clumsy advances.

Fein makes repeated appeals for pity: his fatness that makes him so repellent to women has been caused by a glandular condition.

Still, Ioanna Kimbook as the young actress that he chooses to molest is so unbothered by her ordeal that she later returns to see him to give him a gift. As for the only other female character – his secretary Sondra, played by Doon Mackichan – she knows all about what’s going on, but never seems to give it a moment’s thought.

There’s a play to be written about the Harvey Weinsteins of this world, but it needs to be written not from their point of view, but from the point of view of their victims. Mamet doesn’t get that, and, in all honesty, he should have more of a care about his own reputation and what it is that he stands for.

Engelbert Humperdinck had assured his place in history as a respected 19th century German composer before the crooner best known for Release Me came along and purloined his name. Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre goes some way to redressing the balance in favour of the original Humperdinck with its revival of his all too seldom performed Hansel and Gretel. Timothy Sheader’s production in association 
with the ENO may not necessarily be 
one for the kids, but it’s great fun for 
adults.