A captivating freak-show: Bitter Wheat reviewed

29 June 2019

9:00 AM

29 June 2019

9:00 AM

Bitter Wheat, David Mamet’s latest play, features a loathsome Hollywood hotshot, Barney Fein, who offers to turn an actress into a superstar provided she lets him rape her. The show’s gruesome storyline has flashes of bitter comedy. Fein boasts that the Writers Guild of America would ‘drink a beaker of my mucus’ if he forced them to. Although this is the ultimate #MeToo play it can’t prevent itself from taking a masculine point of view. Fein’s assistant, Sondra (Doon Mackichan), conveniently vanishes at the right moment and leaves the starlet at the monster’s mercy. But was Sondra complicit? We aren’t told.

And we learn nothing about her attitude to her boss. Nor do we hear enough about the victim (newcomer Ioanna Kimbook), who lacks even the simplest tactic to deter a sex pest (‘I’m going to be sick’). A female writer would have given her more guile and more emotional armour. Mamet is content to portray her as a tethered lamb while he focuses on fleshing out the wolf.

Some of Fein’s quirks are unnecessary and contradictory. He’s an old-school racist even though he supports a charity for migrants. He hates the films that have made him rich (every one of them?) and he heaps abuse on the fans whose custom he lives off. He’s repulsively fat and he uses his gluttony as a bargaining counter, arguing that his victim owes him sex because he eats too much. But John Malkovich (superbly creepy) has a gaunt face and a lean jaw line which don’t suggest obesity. And the beach ball he shoves under his shirt won’t fool anyone.

In Act Two we get an avalanche of plot details. Fein’s mother is dead. She was murdered. A suspected terrorist shot her. The terrorist is on the loose. The terrorist may be in the building. And so on. The show ends abruptly after two hours with nothing resolved. Shame. I could have watched this captivating freak-show until midnight and beyond. It’s a fine play, rather creakily structured, but not in the league of Speed-the-Plow or Glengarry Glen Ross.

Napoli, Brooklyn is about Italian migrants living in New York in 1960. The mother, Luda, is a saintly drudge whose brute of a husband terrorises their three adolescent daughters. One works in a factory, another has been banished for obscure reasons, and the third, Francesca, is a rebellious lesbian who longs to escape to Paris. The script, overacted in parts, comes to a thrilling climax at a family dinner where the daughters finally stand up to the patriarchal thug. Women will like this melodrama more than men.

The world’s most boring director, Ivo van Hove, returns to the Barbican with an impenetrable saga about a steel company being taken over by Nazis. Les Damnés is a Comédie-Française production, so the Nazis all speak French (although when they sing they use German). The show mixes straight drama with bits of clunky symbolism. The straight drama was too prolix to follow and the symbolism was too banal to be worth following. Van Hove never trusts his scripts to keep an audience interested, so he crams the stage with gimmicky flourishes. A camera crew films the action, live. The house lights are snapped on and off. Dinner tables are laid and swept bare. An actor thumps a big gong quite a lot. To one side, six coffins await their occupants. Each time a victim gets killed, a mini-procession trudges over to the mortuary. As the corpse climbs into the box, a train whistle is sounded to represent a trip to a concentration camp.

The obvious risk with a play about the Nazis is that the outcome is entirely predictable but no attempt was made here to generate suspense or surprise. Van Hove encourages his actors to express high emotion by screaming at top volume — a mistake that trainee directors are taught to avoid. The woman ahead of me plugged her ears to block out the non-stop purgatorial shrieks. After an hour, a man behind me escaped. My neighbour, another female, started checking her messages during a striptease routine performed by two Sturmabteilung (SA) officers who writhed around naked in soapy water. A pail of Ribena was thrown over one of the officers, which meant he was dead, although he was well enough to walk across to his coffin. At that point we’d reached the Night of the Long Knives, I think. What else happened? A cabaret performer tried seducing an under-age girl and then turned his attentions to an older woman. A blonde had her clothes tugged off and was covered in warm Bovril. Continental audiences may enjoy seeing characters drenched in slime but over here it looks a bit Noel’s House Party. After 120 minutes, one of the show’s 27 performers announced that he was surrendering to the Gestapo. I expect his interrogation was less painful than this.

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