John Malkovich stars in Harvey Weinstein-inspired play Bitter Wheat

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John Malkovich plays Barney Fein in Bitter Wheat, which opened in the West End this week

The first West End play to be inspired by the Harvey Weinstein scandal is difficult to categorise.

It essentially starts out as a comedy – with an opening scene that zips along with writer and director David Mamet’s comedic and cutting fast-paced dialogue, wrong-footing the audience in the process.

The tone, however, changes very quickly.

Once the lead character, the arrogant and predatory movie mogul Barney Fein, is left alone with a rising young actress, the atmosphere becomes very uncomfortable indeed.

But John Malkovich, who portrays Fein, welcomes the platform that theatre provides to tackle difficult issues.

“Obviously it’s a fairly difficult subject matter,” he tells BBC News. “But people make plays or movies about all kinds of things, from mass murders to war crimes to rapists to cannibals.

“And at least in the people I know who’ve seen the play, it has provoked conversation and probably allowed conversation which you may not have otherwise. Pretty much everybody is going to have a different view of this topic.”

Speaking about the #MeToo movement more widely, he adds: “I don’t think it’s going to be a topic that just sort of fades away, nor particularly should it be.”

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Manuel Harlan

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Ioanna Kimbrook plays Yung Kim Li, who Fein sets his sights on

Of course, the play isn’t a direct retelling of what Weinstein is alleged to have done, despite the obvious resemblance the lead character’s name has to his.

“Mamet’s new play, we are assured, is fiction and any resemblance to living persons is ‘entirely coincidental’,” wrote Michael Billington in The Guardian.

“Given that the protagonist is an overweight movie tycoon ruined by accusations of sexual misconduct, coincidence clearly has a long arm.”

The #MeToo movement began in October 2017 after The New Yorker published an article which alleged repeated sexual abuse of several women over decades.

Last month, Mr Weinstein settled some of the civil lawsuits he was facing and agreed to pay compensation worth about $44m (£34.7m) to some of the alleged victims.

However, in New York he is currently facing criminal charges, including rape, brought by two women. Mr Weinstein denies all allegations of non-consensual sex.

‘Theatrical clickbait’

Ioanna Kimbrook plays Yung Kim Li – a British-Korean actress who Fein patronises with racial stereotypes throughout the play.

“I do feel a lot of responsibility, she’s kind of the first victim of the #MeToo movement to be put on a big stage like this,” Kimbrook says. “But I think David’s done a great job of portraying her with dignity. She’s very calm, very assured and she deals with the situation well.”

Given the nature of storylines in films, plays and TV series about sexual abuse, some studios have started employing intimacy co-ordinators to help actors get through delicate scenes.

But, Kimbrook says she “never felt awkward” during rehearsals. “[Malkovich] is so giving, and obviously I’m new to this, and he’s been in the business for goodness knows how long. He never made me feel like I was new, I felt like I’d been doing this alongside him for 50 years.”

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Doon Mackichan plays Fein’s personal assistant Sondra

Bitter Wheat – the title refers to one of Fein’s suggested film names – wasn’t universally welcomed by critics after its press night earlier this week.

Alice Jones in the i paper described it as “the theatrical equivalent of clickbait,” adding: “Mamet doesn’t even bother to give his play a proper ending; he might just as well have zoomed in on Malkovich giving us a big wink.”

“Bitter Wheat would be considerably better were it more fleshed out,” wrote Matt Wolf in The New York Times. “That’s assuming, of course, that it had to be written at all.”

Henry Hitchings of The Evening Standard said: “Despite a smattering of Mamet’s famously staccato wisecracks, the play feels lazy, crude and empty.”

Dominic Cavendish awarded the show just two stars in his review for the Telegraph, writing: “The truth is that Bitter Wheat is a bitter disappointment – it doesn’t add enough to the subject and, while it courts controversy, there’s not enough to get the town talking. It may not knock Mamet off his pedestal, but it warrants no trophy either – quite a fail.”

Malkovich reveals the show has been going through regular rewrites since previews began earlier this month.

“I imagine will be at work on this for some time to come,” he says. “This kind of thing, it’s a new play, it’s never really finished… I think David had new things pretty much every day, but then there’s also, ‘where do you put them? Do you get rid of this or get rid of that?’”

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Manuel Harlan

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Sondra is seen grappling with her conscience, knowing what Fein is capable of

Before the play had even been performed, some questioned whether it was an appropriate subject to be tackling on the stage.

“Because it was a man writing it, with the man as a central character, there was a bit of a backlash before it even started,” recalls Doon Mackichan, who plays Fein’s personal assistant Sondra. “So when people judge something before they’ve seen it, I think that’s crazy.”

“As the older woman in the room, I was very aware of the tone, so I was watching and being very aware of how we were playing it.

“For all his monstrous behaviour, [Weinstein] has kicked off a fabulous movement which is changing things for women across the board. So we’re at a really good point for this to be aired and talked about. And Mamet has done it super quickly. We need some stories about the victims, some women’s sides of the stories.”

Malkovich reasons: “No matter what you did, there’d be outrage anyway. But I wouldn’t say it’s about Harvey Weinstein, he’s at best a kind of stand-in. I think David [Mamet] has probably said what he has to say, people can like that or lump it. Better if they write their own plays.”

Bitter Wheat is playing at London’s Garrick Theatre until 21 September.

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