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It’s the nightmare scenario that is all too plausible: Donald Trump throws his hat back into the ring in the next U.S. presidential election. Still uninterested in serving the country. Out for revenge. British playwright Mike Bartlett dips his toe into that disturbing prospect, with a new play that, like Trump himself, veers between the terrifying and the outrageously comic. Under Rupert Goold’s arresting direction, there are moments when it really does feel as though all the garish spectacle and tortured introspection of American politics has descended upon the London stage.
As with his Olivier-winning King Charles III, Bartlett attempts to add a Shakespearean timbre to proceedings, with mixed success this time. The blank verse brings vim to the proceedings, but there’s nothing in Trump, real or imagined, that could match Charles’ hubristic, bone-crushing personal
tragedy. That said, The 47th is certainly provocative, with a remarkable performance at its center from Bertie Carvel, seen recently as Banquo in Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth.
Carvel’s entrance is hilarious — driving a golf cart onto the stage, before making a putt that misses the flag and sends his ball off the edge of the rostrum. More striking than the stunt, is the appearance. It’s difficult to describe the effect of Carvel’s uncanny physical transformation: when he first appears the actor’s actual features are so completely hidden that for a moment it seems someone else has been cast at the last minute. It elicits the most scintillating double, even triple take.
So, a special mention must go to Richard Mawbey and Rob Wilson for wigs, hair and makeup. At the same time, the chameleonic Carvel (who excelled as another immensely powerful, real-life rogue, Rupert Murdoch, in Ink) has subsumed himself completely into his character: the whiny voice, halfway between harangue and supplication; the catalog of hand gestures; the calculated lean-back stance to offset the gut; the preen and menace of the man.
And yet, this is not a simple impersonation, as text and performance suggest a slightly different Trump: a few years older, a little jaded but more Machiavellian — though of course he admits to not having read The Prince because it’s “too long.” Carvel’s delicious dexterity with Bartlett’s blank verse offers the most effective use of the language, as it lends a new dimension to the depressingly well-worn public persona.
From the golf course he addresses the audience directly. “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 play is not mere fancy: The Donald really won’t go away.
The playwright reveals his intentions in short order, while rather clumsily mix-and-matching his Shakespearean references. Lear-like, Trump challenges his three oldest children, Donald Jr. (Oscar Lloyd), Eric (Freddie Meredith) and Ivanka (Lydia Wilson) to pitch for the role of heir, with Ivanka winning that dubious honor. Then, after he pledges his endorsement of an oleaginous Ted Cruz (James Garnon) as Republican nominee, like Richard III he confides in the audience his intention to “plan and plot aplenty” for “my just revenge.”
Meanwhile, Joe Biden (Simon Williams) is close to committing to run for a second term — despite his age and, surprisingly, with the support of Kamala Harris (Tamara Tunie), who has spent a frustrating four years playing second fiddle. 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 on the battle instead of Biden, and Ivanka to scheme behind the scenes to replace her dad sooner than he thinks.
The play is at its strongest in suggesting the continued erosion of American Democracy that a returning Trump would offer — the man simply picks up where he left off, by extending the Capitol insurrection to a nationwide scale and calling for “flames of freedom.” The presence of an unruly mob, including the QAnon Shaman (Joss Carter), is truly chilling. Bartlett then considers what effect this would have on the principled Harris, clinging to her belief in due process while under considerable pressure to play dirty herself.
Bartlett is on shakier ground in the family scenes, with the Trump boys badly underwritten and the initial premise of Shakespearean internecine rivalry turning into an undramatic rout by Ivanka. Another subplot involving a brother and sister divided by their party loyalties is also weak, despite the Democrat’s unfortunate run-in with the insurrectionists.
Tunie (Law & Order: Special Victims Unit) is a convincing Harris, sturdy under fire, nobly taking on more than her fair share of “worthy but dull” lines (Bartlett at least acknowledges this, by having Trump cut her off for being boring). Williams offers a lovely cameo as poor Joe Biden, finally succumbing to age and the sheer terror of facing Trump a second time. And Garnon is impressive as both Cruz (desperate, foolish, cringeworthy) and the leader of the Trumpian mob.
But alongside Carvel, it’s Wilson who captures the imagination as Ivanka. Wilson played Kate Middleton in King Charles III, so is reprising a particular function as a family member scheming in the wings. This time, the character doesn’t have her partner as accomplice, Jared Kushner being written out of this version of the domestic soap. Wilson carries it alone, in a wardrobe to die for, subtly, stylishly delineating Ivanka’s course from family loyalty to power grab. How interesting, that just this week the real-life Ivanka was doing something similar before the Jan. 6 committee.
The edges of The Old Vic’s ornate auditorium naturally provide a semblance of governmental buildings and, during the convention, banners are conveniently draped from the theater boxes. Otherwise, Miriam Buether’s sleek, flexible set design allows for everything from a Florida golf course to a war room and a prison cell, with back projections notably creating a hellish, insurrectionist mood. When ticker tape literally showers the audience, some might find themselves involuntarily tempted to shout, “America Rules.”
Venue: The Old Vic, London
Cast: 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
Set designer: Miriam Buether
Costume designer: Evie Gurney
Lighting designer: Neil Austin
Music: Adam Cork
Sound designer: Tony Gayle
Presented by The Old Vic, Sonia Friedman Productions, Annapurna Theatre
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