Bitter Wheat ★★★

John Malkovich, as the transgressive tyrant you’ll love to hate, dominates David Mamet’s dissection of Hollywood’s toxic culture

To date, John Malkovich has not given the world his Richard III. On the strength of David Mamet’s not so forensic demolition of monstrous Hollywood mogul Barney Fein, with the right script he would do justice to Shakespeare’s dangerously appealing villain, though here his job is to be laughably, lamentably unappealing. The matinee audience’s response indicates that he is succeeding, despite – or perhaps because of – a script that offers very little light or shade and a sexually predatory anti-hero who is a toxic mix of self-pity and egocentricity.

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Is Malkovich "being" Harvey Weinstein? He's certainly Mamet’s gleeful projection of the discredited movie producer. He prowls the stage in a fat-suit that doesn't quite make him fat enough to warrant whines like “The overweight get no sympathy,” although again, perhaps that’s the whole point: he's self-obsessed and has a complex. What actually matters is the power he has accrued over all those around him that, to date, has enabled him to inveigle young Hollywood hopefuls into performing sexual acts, or simply watching him perform solo.

He may have met his match in South Korean starlet Yung Kim Li, summoned straight off a 27-hour flight by the unempathetic Fein. In exchange for immediate sexual favours, his deal or no deal offers the exhausted young woman stardom, both as scriptwriter of her own treatments and as heroine of unlikely adaptations of Gone with the Wind and a gay take on Anne Frank’s Diary. As the play’s poster girl for the #MeToo movement, Ioanna Kimbook has just the right touching combination of vulnerability and steel.

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How she brings him down is the matter of a comedy that is likely to make some feel uncomfortable, for its language and sexual explicitness. I guess that is Mamet’s aim, though it is when Fein plays the antisemitism card that others like me might feel most embarrassed.

There is a subplot involving his razor-sharp assistant Sondra (Doon Mackichan, power dressed in black and spot on in an underwritten role) reminding him about his mother’s birthday. This though is not the Jewish mother who damaged her son. Rather, his mother is just another woman Fein is exploiting by using her to front his investments, while concealing her dementia with the aid of an unscrupulous doctor in his pay (an all-too-brief appearance by Teddy Kempner).

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The unseen mother is also the offstage victim of the terrorist incident in Bergdorf’s department store that triggers the wildly unlikely, though admittedly funny, climax of a comedy that ultimately loses its way. It's not helped by the playwright’s own direction that often has a shouty, one-note Malkovich downstage, upstaging himself by addressing assistant Sondra on the upper level behind him. Nor is it helped by the hiatus from two scene changes requiring the lowering of the safety curtain, though it was helpful that these were flagged up from the start.

Although some audience members gave Malkovich a standing ovation, they won’t have made the mistake of thinking that Fein gives a damn and it really is hard to give a damn about Fein.

By Judi Herman

Photos by Manuel Harlan

Bitter Wheat runs until Saturday 21 September: 7.30pm, 2.30pm (Thu & Sat only). From £15. Garrick Theatre, WC2H 0HH. 033 0333 4811.