After watching the Harvey Weinstein based play, Bitter Wheat, Farah Najib wonders whether theatre is there to upset us and why her reaction was so different to those around her.
A few months ago, my partner called me up.
“I got us tickets for Bitter Wheat!” he exclaimed excitedly from the other end of the phone. I was confused.
“Bitter Wheat – the new David Mamet play coming to the West End? John Malkovich is gonna be in it!”
My heart sank. Oh, that. I had heard about it. David Mamet, American playwright probably best-known for Oleanna – which depicts a university student accusing her professor of sexual harassment (no prizes for guessing whose side the play takes) – was bringing a brand-spanking new play to London. A ‘dark farce’. About Harvey Weinstein.
I sighed down the phone.
“Erm…I don’t think I really want to see that,” I said. “Why would you think I’d want to see that?”
“Oh. I… I just wanted to see John Malkovich on stage!” My partner’s an actor, and Malkovich is a personal hero of his. He seemed a little upset by my response.
Some heated debates later, I decided that I’d go, attempting to temporarily put aside my own personal feelings about the gargantuan problem of privileged, old, white men wielding the Me Too baton in order to sell tickets. After all, there was no way it could be worse than Steven Berkoff’s one-man show Harvey at the Playground Theatre earlier this year, which I wrote about here.
There are a handful of shows I’ve seen during my theatre life so far that will forever stick in my mind because of their unique audience experiences. There was debbie tucker green’s ear for eye at the Royal Court, and the whoops of anger and solidarity from a group of young, black schoolchildren. Morgan Lloyd Malcom’s Emilia conjured up an atmosphere of feminist fury and unity unlike anything I’ve experienced inside a theatre before. The intimate setting of Casey Jay Andrews’ The Archive of Educated Hearts at this year’s Vault Festival invited a small audience of just 10 people to entrust their feelings into one another’s hands to listen to some deeply personal stories about breast cancer. We cried together.
These pieces all relied on one thing to achieve their aims: for the audience to feel upset. About racism, about the treatment of women, about the indiscriminate cruelty of disease. Recently, Malkovich stated in an interview with the Telegraph that “upsetting people is the point of theatre.” Well, yes and no. With the plays I’ve mentioned, it was absolutely right for the audience to feel upset. Our upset was part of a desire for action and change. The upset that Malkovich refers to, however, has nothing to do with criticising the violence committed against women’s bodies by powerful men. Rather, he refers to the possibility of audiences being upset by excruciating near-rape scenes and jokes about assault. And what does that achieve?
As Lyn Gardner pointed out in this article, back in February, the Me Too story belongs to women. This isn’t to say that men have no place in the movement – absolutely not. I believe male artists can play a key role. Tom Ratcliffe’s Velvet at Vault Fest, for example, was a wonderfully authentic portrayal of one man’s experience of a toxic industry. It was a dark comedy in all the right ways; it was upsetting, because it pushed its audience to consider the movement from a new angle. But Bitter Wheat does no such thing – it doesn’t even attempt to.
I think the most pertinent point to make about Malkovich’s statement, ultimately, is that nobody in that audience was upset. When one goes to see a play in the West End, one generally expects to sit amongst a predominantly white, middle-aged, middle-to-upper-class audience. Ticket price and poor accessibility make that pretty much a given. But Bitter Wheat really goes above and beyond – it is as if the audience has been plucked directly from the aisles of Waitrose. And identical to the Berkoff experience, on the night I attended they responded with the same detachment and nonchalance to the issues at stake.
Malkovich, of course, holds a lot of star power and on the night in question, the audience seemed desperate to make damn sure that he knew how hilarious they were finding his portrayal of ‘Barney Fein’ (ahem). In short, they were sucking up. There were some lines worthy of small laughs, but I would say quite objectively that not one of them merited the raucous laughter of many who surrounded us. I’m especially referring to the man three rows in front with a guffaw so loud it shook the already precarious-looking pillars of the Garrick. He found Barney’s warning to a young actress (played by Ioanna Kimbook) that he would tie her to a chair and force her to watch him masturbate if she tried to run away, particularlyhilarious. He certainly was not upset.
It isn’t exactly a comforting feeling to sit amongst an audience of hundreds and have a seemingly drastically different experience to those who surround you. It forces you to ask: is it me? Am I in the wrong for thinking, simply, that this play should never have seen the light of day? Despite all the ethical and moral question marks, Bitter Wheat is distinctly, painfully average. The commendable performances of Kimbook and Doon Mackichan have a chance of saving it, but of course they are forced to flounder within (surprise surprise) severely underwritten characters.
Malkovich also said in the aforementioned interview that “anything now can be used against you that you said or supposedly said – it’s Salem.” Such a statement is all too reminiscent of the endless stream of upset male voices that have cried ‘witch-hunt’ since the explosion of Me Too and lamented their supposed loss of free speech. And yet, men’s voices are still being positioned firmly centre stage – but it seems that not enough of us are upset about that, by any stretch.
I’m all for being upset by theatre. It can be a call to action. A push to do something. To tell others. To make noise. But I’ll say it again: nobody was upset. And actually, that’s what’s most upsetting of all.