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'The 47th' review — a hollow political pageant sees Bertie Carvel transform into Donald Trump

Marianka Swain
Marianka Swain

Shapeshifter Bertie Carvel, mesmerising as Miss Trunchbull and Rupert Murdoch, and soon to play Tony Blair in The Crown, adds to his gallery of rogues with an eerily lifelike Donald Trump in The 47th. In fact, his grand entrance in a golf cart draws gasps from the Old Vic audience. But, good though Carvel is, Mike Bartlett’s latest is a hollow political pageant.

It’s another blank-verse, future-history play, like his lauded King Charles III, although this time the Shakespearean references are more overt and less effective. It’s Bard Bingo: spot the King Lear premise, Richard III soliloquising, Lady Macbeth whispering, Mark Antony rhetoric, the sleepwalking, blinding and poison plot.

As for Trump, Bartlett captures his verbal tics and slippery speech – “So rude”, “I have great eyes, such eyes”, “People call it a coup”, “The economy, so beautiful” – plus the playground taunts and racist dog whistles, while also gifting him fluid articulacy in the iambic pentameter verse. This Trump sneers that the world can’t turn away from him, since he is “our devil”, and threatens to seek “just revenge” for his election defeat.

We’re in 2024, and the nightmare scenario is Trump deciding to run again – the play’s title refers to the 47th President of the United States – while threatening America’s democratic norms to an even greater degree. Meanwhile, Joe Biden ponders handing over power over to his Vice-President, Kamala Harris, and the Trump children bicker over whether to stay loyal or strike out on their own.

Carvel is the big draw here with another astonishing transformation. He nails Trump’s combination of hulking and mincing – the pursed lips, the thrust-out stomach, the mannered finger-pointing – as well as his petty narcissism and short attention span. But as funny and compelling as the portrait is, it doesn’t tell us anything new.

Other characters’ attempts to psychoanalyse him (he’s a lonely guy who needs attention) are half-hearted, and a thread about the fear of mortality, while certainly applicable to plenty of strongman leaders, like Putin, feels underdeveloped. In fact, Carvel’s Trump is most riveting when he leans into the wholly villainous: his manipulation of the crowd, terrorising of his children, overt misogyny and white supremacy, and lust for violence.

But since Bartlett correctly labels Trump a showman, I can’t help but think he would be flattered by all this attention – and by audiences gathering to watch a shrewd, eloquent and ruthless version of him. Are we actually contributing to a Trump resurgence?

Elsewhere, Lydia Wilson is shiver-inducing as icy Ivanka, the slightly more acceptable face of fascism, while James Garnon is a perfectly spineless weasel of a Ted Cruz. Oscar Lloyd and Freddie Meredith form a good double act as, respectively, the weak-willed Donald Jnr and dopey Eric Trump, but Bartlett lets them off easy by painting them as victims.

Least convincing are two fictional constructs: Charlie, a New York Times journalist, and sister Rosie, who just happens to be a Trump fanatic. The latter spouts ridiculous arguments about liberals being too chicken to shoot a stranger in order to save their kids, and her Trump supporters group is an armed militia made up of redneck thugs. Bartlett basically does what Rosie accuses Charlie of: presenting a bad-faith, reductive and mocking view of people who are too stupid to be on the right side.

Thank goodness for Tamara Tunie’s brilliant turn as Kamala Harris. In stark contrast to Trump, she wrestles over her right to rule, weighs what’s best for the country against her personal beliefs, and passionately reflects on how men like Donald are fighting to reverse the gains of the Civil Rights movement.

Rupert Goold’s production is typically slick and vibrant. The play’s frequent changes of mood and location are aided by Neil Austin’s giant ring light and Ash J Woodward’s video projections, though Lynne Page’s stylised movement for the QAnon Shaman (during, essentially, a replay of the Capitol riot) falls flat.

Ultimately, Bartlett’s play, though vastly entertaining, neither offers fresh wisdom on the past nor grapples with the future; there’s no mention of Covid or Ukraine. It places accepted truths into striking poetry – “Party lines have grown to walls” – but its warnings come far too late, and with the smug benefit of hindsight. Trump gets the last laugh here.

The 47th is at the Old Vic to 28 May. Book The 47th tickets on London Theatre.

Photo credit: Bertie Carvel in The 47th (Photo by Marc Brenner)

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