It’s the nightmare scenario that’s all too plausible: Donald Trump puts his hat back in the ring during the next US presidential election. Still not interested in serving the country. For revenge. British playwright Mike Bartlett dips his toe into this ominous prospect, with a new play that, like Trump himself, oscillates between the terrifying and the outrageously comical. Under the gripping direction of Rupert Goold, there are times when it really does feel like all the garish spectacle and tortured introspection of American politics has descended on the London stage.
As with his Olivier-winner King Charles III, Bartlett attempts to add a Shakespearian stamp to the proceedings, with mixed success this time. The blank verse brings dynamism to the proceedings, but there’s nothing about Trump, real or imagined, that can match Charles’ hubristic and overwhelming personality.
the tragedy. That said, The 47th is certainly provocative, with at its center a remarkable performance by Bertie Carvel, seen recently as Banquo in Joel Coen Macbeth’s Tragedy.
Carvel’s entrance is hilarious – driving a golf cart onto the stage, before making a putt that misses the flagstick and sends his ball off the edge of the stand. More striking than the waterfall is the appearance. It’s hard to describe the effect of Carvel’s strange physical transformation: when he first appears, the actor’s real features are so completely hidden that for a moment it seems like someone another was chosen at the last minute. It elicits the most scintillating double, even triple take.
So, a special mention has to go to Richard Mawbey and Rob Wilson for the wigs, hair and makeup. Meanwhile, the chameleon Carvel (who excelled as another immensely powerful and real thug, Rupert Murdoch, in Ink) completely integrated into his character: the whining voice, halfway between harangue and supplication; the catalog of hand gestures; the reclining position calculated to compensate for the bowel; the preen and the threat of man.
And yet, it is not a simple impersonation, both the text and the performance suggest a slightly different Trump: a few years older, a little jaded but more Machiavellian – even if he admits of course not having read The prince because it’s “too long”. Carvel’s delightful dexterity with Bartlett’s blank verse offers the most effective use of language, as it gives a new dimension to the depressing and worn public persona.
From the golf course, he speaks directly to the public. “I know you hate me… Your hate is real and beautiful… You just can’t get enough of me.” And with that, Bartlett offers a reminder of why his piece isn’t just a fantasy: The Donald really won’t leave.
The playwright reveals his intentions in a short time, while mixing rather awkwardly his Shakespearian references. Like Lear, Trump challenges his three eldest children, Donald Jr. (Oscar Lloyd), Eric (Freddie Meredith) and Ivanka (Lydia Wilson) to pitch as heir, with Ivanka winning the dubious honor. Then, after pledging his endorsement of an oilseed Ted Cruz (James Garnon) as a Republican nominee, as Richard III, he confides in the public his intention to “plan and plot profusely” for “my just revenge.”
Meanwhile, Joe Biden (Simon Williams) is set to commit to a second term – despite his age and, surprisingly, with the support of Kamala Harris (Tamara Tunie), who spent four frustrating years playing the second violin. The stage is set for Trump to hijack a Republican convention (Mark Antony this time, and with a new new slogan: “America Rules”), for Harris to take up the fight in place of Biden, and Ivanka planning behind the scenes to replace his father sooner than he thinks.
The play peaks in suggesting the continued erosion of American democracy that a returning Trump would deliver – the man simply picks up where he left off, expanding the Capitol insurgency nationwide and calling for “flames of freedom”. The presence of an unruly crowd, including the QAnon Shaman (Joss Carter), is truly frightening. Bartlett then considers what effect this would have on the principled Harris, clinging to her belief in due process while being under considerable pressure to smear herself.
Bartlett is on more shaky ground in the family scenes, with the poorly underwritten Trump boys and the initial premise of Shakespearian sibling rivalry turning into an undramatic rout of Ivanka. Another subplot involving a brother and sister divided by their party loyalties is also weak, despite the Democrats’ unfortunate encounter with the insurgents.
Tunisia (Law & Order: Special Victims Unit) is a convincing Harris, solid under fire, nobly taking on more than his fair share of “dignified but boring” lines (Bartlett at least acknowledges this, asking Trump to cut her for her boring). Williams delivers a fine appearance as poor Joe Biden, eventually succumbing to age and the sheer terror of facing Trump a second time. And Garnon is impressive both as Cruz (desperate, insane, trustworthy) and as a Trumpian mob boss.
But alongside Carvel, it’s Wilson who captures the imagination as Ivanka. Wilson played Kate Middleton in King Charles III, so does taking over a particular role as a scheming family member behind the scenes. This time, the character does not have his partner as an accomplice, Jared Kushner being excluded from this version of the domestic soap opera. Wilson wears it alone, in a wardrobe to die for, subtly and stylishly delineating Ivanka’s journey from family loyalty to empowerment. How interesting, this very week the real Ivanka was doing something similar in front of the January 6 committee.
The edges of The Old Vic’s ornate auditorium naturally offer a semblance of government buildings, and during the convention, banners are conveniently draped from the theater boxes. Otherwise, Miriam Buether’s sleek and flexible set design allows for everything from a Florida golf course to a war room and jail cell, with rear projections notably creating a hellish, insurrectionary vibe. When the ticker literally floods the audience, some might be unwittingly tempted to shout “American Rules.”
Venue: The Old Vic, London
With: Bertie Carvel, Tamara Tunie, Lydia Wilson, James Cooney, James Garnon, Jenni Maitland, Cherrelle Skeete, Ami Tredrea, Simon Williams, Oscar Lloyd, Freddie Meredith, Joss Carter
Playwright: Mike Bartlett
Director: Rupert Goold
Scenographer: Miriam Buether
Costume designer: Evie Gurney
Lighting Designer: Neil Austin
Music: Adam Cork
Sound Engineer: Tony Gayle
Presented by The Old Vic, Sonia Friedman Productions, Annapurna Theater