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theatre

The 47th – Old Vic

Bertie Carvel commands the stage with a magisterial Trump impression, but Mike Bartlett’s future-history in blank verse lacks Shakespearean depth

Bertie Carvel in The 47th

‘Art needs time and space and reflection we can all agree on that.’

From Shipwreck, by Anne Washburn (2019)

It is a lexical quirk of the American political system that Presidents become known by their number. Trump was, and is, the 45th, Obama 44th. Joe Biden is the 46th, and – should he not run again in 2024 – we are only a couple of years away from the 47th. However, only one US President (so far) is known by two numerals. Grover Cleveland, by dint of winning Presidential office twice, separated by the Presidency of Benjamin Harrison, thus counts as the 22nd and 24th President of the USA. It is a pub quiz trivia staple and remains unique in US political history. Perhaps, that is, until 2024, should Donald Trump run successfully again.

This creeping liberal dread that Trump might emerge victorious again underpins Mike Bartlett’s The 47th. The title seems – at least before you see the play – as if it cannot bear to speak Trump’s name, referring to him by an undeserved moniker he has rendered mock-heroic. In the play itself though, it is a wry, satisfying touch from Bartlett that the title does not refer to Trump after all, but Kamala Harris. She is instated by Biden in his place as his health deteriorates, in an act that seems to reverse-mirror Trump’s own refusal to share power when ill with Coronavirus. It is a canny substitution, though in no meaningful way does the character of Donald Trump have second billing here – either on the page, or in Bertie Carvel’s scene-chewing and -stealing, magisterial turn. This is, to use language of many reviewers during his Presidency (as they did about Brexit), a ‘Trump play’.

Lydia Wilson and Tamara Tunie in The 47th

The 47th seems most obviously reminiscent of Bartlett’s 2014 play King Charles III, which shares a future-history premise and a director in Rupert Goold. While King Charles III opened at the Almeida, of which Goold is Artistic Director, The 47th arrives in the much vaster space of the Old Vic – aware that a play with as zeitgeisty a subject and Carvel in such a headline-grabbing lead would attract a larger potential audience. In King Charles III, Bartlett sought out the human weaknesses and follies beneath the grandeur, tradition, and clipped rhetoric of the monarchy – unearthing the seething political opinions and ambitions that lie beneath the long-cultivated veneer of neutrality. The problem with applying the same logic to Trump is that he appears to have no filter. The thrill of seeing a protagonist soliloquising in private – one of the great attractions of Shakespeare’s history plays – is far less edifying when his every thought has been blasted across rolling news coverage. There is relatively little at stake dramatically when he so sorely lacks self-doubt – little interiority to be found. He appears to be a man whose every thought is bluntly, digressively articulated, and, though riven with contradiction, there is little actual conflict within him.

Bartlett does not seem interested in subverting this popular view of Trump here – actively tailoring his Trump to goad us. He remains the cartoon villain we expect, entering on a golf buggy and bragging to us about his achievements from the off. The main difference from the real Trump is the infusion of a greater awareness of liberal sensibilities and things he is mocked for. Trump repeatedly both-sides-ed racial violence and propagated the ‘birther’ conspiracy theory about Obama’s citizenship, yet chiding liberals for discriminating against him for the (orange) ‘colour my skin’ speaks in a liberal vernacular that seems unlikely. He claims to be an entertainer and ‘Your devil’, swearing revenge on those who have ‘exile[d]’ him from the White House and taking us along for the ride. The spirit of pantomime is deliberately alive in his words; he is villain who loves to be a villain.

I was also reminded of Anne Washburn’s wordily brilliant Shipwreck, one of the first plays (perhaps even the first) to put Trump on the London stage. Directed by Goold again, at the Almeida, this mostly portrayed a group of liberals gathering in a remote farmhouse, during a worsening storm, before revealing Trump himself – during a terrifying recreation of his ‘loyalty dinner’ with James Comey. Shipwreck’s rich poetry seemed like a space of solace – of intellectual defiance against the Trump administration, and refusing to fight his brash, name-calling rhetoric on its own terms.

Bartlett’s play too seems to hope that an ostensibly anti-intellectual problem can have an intellectual solution too – that empathy, intelligence and culture will ultimately win out – though it is perhaps less convincing. Its formal gesture seems something of a comfort blanket – not least because it is a return to a specific form, for which Bartlett was previously garlanded. Trump’s angular rhythms are strangely transposed into iambic pentameter, and there seems to be an implicit aesthetic critique that comes from the uncanny juxtaposition. Yet the problem of Trump is not merely the way he talks. Though his manner of speech is an undeniable part of his troubling, dangerous speech acts, it is far from the whole. One of the arguments implicit in Shipwreck seems to be that a liberal critique of Trump that dwells only on formal matters, rather than content is doomed to failure. As Michael Billington wrote in his review in The Guardian, it ‘does something you rarely see in the theatre: it takes Donald Trump seriously rather than as a subject for easy satire.’ The 47th attempts to rationalise the way Trump seems to be an obvious baddie – yet remains a political danger. Yet the impulse it springs from does seem too cheaply comic. What if Trump was King Lear? Wouldn’t that be funny?

Bertie Carvel’s Trump is far more accurate – in mannerism, appearance and voice – than Shipwreck’s version, played by Elliot Cowan in the original Almeida production. Yet for all his realism, The 47th gives Trump only crude malignancy, rather than active malice. Carvel’s performance is a strong recreation, but Cowan’s unhinged tyrant, bare-chested and painted gold, is a more interesting interpretation of his self-aggrandised horror.

In much of the play, Bartlett seems intent to serve up a (somewhat hollow) form of narrative justice for Trump’s actions. Trump is arrested and placed in jail, the imagery of him orange boiler-suited seems like liberal wish fulfilment, after his real-life double impeachment was exposed as functionally meaningless without Senate backing and investigations into his tax affairs have yielded little legal consequence. Perhaps inevitably given its genre of Shakespearean (future) history meets tragedy, Trump dies at the end, in a sequence fashioned presumably as an oblique comeuppance for Trump’s gutting of Obamacare. Slightly implausibly, Trump’s financial folly has led to him not even being covered by health insurance. He is given a private room in the hospital, as in jail, only for security reasons.

The second half falls into a slightly repetitive pattern, hinging on two fairly similar tête-à-têtes between Harris and Trump that buttress the drama. With such fixed positions, based on life, there is little either can gain from each other, apart from the most begrudging form of mutual respect. Elsewhere, the characters simply do not have enough depth to sustain major scenes. Ivanka (an icily composed Lydia Wilson) runs rings around her siblings too easily to create the Succession-like thrills that seem to be intended, as the Trump children jockey for position. This is compounded by Ivanka clearly being her father’s favourite. In Succession, the only daughter Shiv’s relative competence is offset by her father’s lingering preference for his sons – this dynamic functioning as the central thread of the second series. The best scenes with Trump offstage follow siblings Charlie and Rosie Takahashi, one a (Democrat-supporting) journalist, the other a Republican working for Ivanka’s Presidential campaign. The personal stakes of politics emerge in their confrontations, sibling loyalty tussling with political allegiance.

Like Washburn, Bartlett approaches Trump with a curious formal abstraction. Shipwreck is dubbed a ‘history play about 2017’ (which was first staged in early 2019), while The 47th (like King Charles III) is a future history, documenting the hypothetical events of the 2024 election. Perhaps it is because Trump seems so literal and unsubtle; speaking truth to power by simply representing a simulation of the truth won’t cut it. Instead, stepping back (or forward) allows us to observe him within a broader cultural moment.

Yet Shakespeare too, even more than in King Charles III, operates as a genre in of itself – as well as being another form of abstraction. The plot is shaped partly by real-world conjecture about a coming electoral race, combined with recognisable pastiche of Shakespearean moments. Most clearly, the play begins with Trump as King Lear – and the overall shape of Trump’s arc in the play could be (very) loosely mapped onto that character. He begins by musing on his coming demise; instead of a kingdom, he has an inheritance to divide up. Bartlett commits to a conception of Trump which is virtually indistinguishable in public and private, exacting calculated cruelty on his family and stroppily demanding each child flatters him into making them his sole heir. Don Jr. and Eric make their fawning, self-abasing arguments, before Ivanka follows the Shakespearean pattern of Cordelia and refuses to partake in his spiteful game. Instead of banishing her though, Trump remarks ‘And just like that the mic is roundly dropped. […] She had no competition.’ Inevitably – and Bartlett’s script spells out this many times – Trump is presented a monstrously inverted Freudian embodiment of the Oedipus complex – the father who wants to have sex with his daughter. She was always going to be his heir.

Shakespeare plays are often performed in large theatres. (The National’s Olivier hosts one most years, as does their Lyttleton stage.) Yet this is as much to do with the reliability of Shakespeare selling tickets (and perhaps the decline in the fashion for doubling supporting roles, and thus the need of large casts) than the quality of the plays themselves. Though the Globe Theatre has become a cultural touchstone for Shakespearean performance, his plays were often presented in smaller venues – more akin to Shakespeare’s Globe’s winter venue, the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. There is an intimacy to Shakespearean drama that is often lost – though a great production can create this in a large space. The 47th does lack this intimacy. Partly, this could be the venue. (You wonder what the experience would have been like if Goold had programmed it in the 325 seat Almeida.) Yet there is also something remote about the characters themselves. They appear largely as they do on the news – self-possessed, even as they lose control of events. The rich, archaeological characterisation that you might expect from a Shakespearean drama is mostly missing.

Lydia Wilson in The 47th

Goold’s choice of plays to direct evinces a desire to grasp the nettle of many contemporary political issues. Albion, another Almeida collaboration with Bartlett (in 2017, and revived again in February 2020), was held up as ‘The play that Britain needs right now’ by Dominic Cavendish’s five-star review in The Daily Telegraph. Though Cavendish avoided saying ‘Brexit’ in his review, his subtext was fairly evident, and other reviewers made the connection explicit in other, largely glowing write-ups. Yet even this allegorical drama about restoring an English garden to its (apparent) former glory was designed with a structural abstraction – utilising an overtly Chekhovian structure, with four acts (one for each season), and an ending redolent of The Cherry Orchard.

Sometimes this impulse towards political (or at least politicised) drama has been misjudged. Ava Wong Davies’s brilliant review of The Hunt for Exeunt perfectly captures the tension between admiration for Goold’s typically compelling direction and deep unease at its implications, by scripting a conversation between a defending voice and a detracting one. Dramatizing the descent of a teacher, who is falsely accused of sexually abusing a child, I think that play (an adaptation of Thomas Vinterberg’s 2012 film) likely stemmed from an impulse of exploration, rather than apology or excuse for abusive male behaviour, keen to examine how public opinion is formed and how it shifts. Yet the underlying unlikeliness of the plotting and the political context of high-profile allegations as part of #MeToo made it seem a deeply reactionary piece of theatre, unfortunately placing sympathy squarely with the accused rather than the abused.

The 47th seems to emerge from a similar nettle-grasping political drive, yet the results seem fairly modest. Though most of my detractions are with the script, the production too lacks Goold’s usual fast-pace and flair. The costuming and prosthetics that produce Trump before us are hugely impressive, yet the rest of the design underwhelms a little. Miriam Buether, who designed such a gorgeous garden set which changed with each season in Albion, here channels the marble of the White House and the shape of the Oval Office, in a two-tier set. Unfortunately, it gets caught between naturalistic and stylised aesthetics though, and ends up feeling slightly visually bland. (Her latest collaboration with Goold, Patriots at the Almeida, is a triumph.) Enlivening the space, however, is Neil Austin’s use of light, which generates a palpable menace in scenes with QAnon – Buether evoking the horrifying aesthetic of the January 6th Capitol rioters.

Bartlett’s drama operates as both future prediction and post-mortem, willing into being the end of the Trump story. By contrast, Shipwreck is less about the political events of 2017 itself as liberal hypocrisy (‘There’s a little bit [of money] offshore’, one character admits) and handwringing as American culture adjusts to its new President. Washburn even refers to the trend of dressing up Shakespeare for different political occasions, as a way of coping with the uncertain moment. One character describes ‘that Shakespeare in the Park thing’ where ‘the man who plays Julius Caesar has a weird orange blond wig, […] and in the end he’s assassinated by a lot of brown people’. The production did happen – directed by Oskar Eustis – and was repeatedly interrupted by right-wing activists calling for an end to ‘political violence’ against the right. Yet despite their claims, reinterpreted Shakespeare can hardly be called violence, and there are clear limits to its effectiveness as resistance too. Shipwreck captures the ineffectualness of most art in its attempts to hold power to account. Instead, such productions are more a form of political therapy – giving the illusion of engagement as a substitute for meaningful (and potentially dangerous) political action. Another of Washburn’s characters responds ‘how are we finding a way to process all of this thoughtfully [and] is Shakespeare any kind of answer? Is Shakespeare really relevant to the current day?’

Washburn’s questions seem fascinatingly apt to The 47th. Shakespeare, her characters debate, is both a second choice and the only option; ‘I think they’d use a contemporary play only there isn’t one’. There is no drama ‘about this exact moment’, so old stories must be re-dressed for the occasion. Bartlett attempts to square the circle – drawing on Shakespearean heft with a drama about the coming moment, as the present one is arguably too ephemeral to bottle. Another voice chimes in: ‘Why don’t we just give up already, why don’t we give up and agree that plays are never going to be about the current moment and they shouldn’t be about the current moment. Plays are about the Eternal moment, yes?’ The claim that plays are expressions of universal truth is not entirely convincing, and I don’t believe Washburn expects us to agree with such a sweeping statement, but the eventual point at which this discussion comes to rest seems fair: ‘Art needs time and space and reflection we can all agree on that.’ Yet The 47th seems oddly airless, without this space. Bartlett has not (yet) described how the play came into being – whether it was part-designed to coincide with the 2020 election, before Covid cancellations hit, perhaps. Yet though the gesture of reflection – in this case looking into the future – is present, there is a sense that time and space are not.

Ultimately, while The 47th sees Bartlett returning to the writerly instinct that generated King Charles III, for Goold it seems more of a return to Shipwreck’s idea space. Washburn’s play is thornier – its problems less reducible to one man or one set of circumstances. Its problems are elemental – evoking her earlier play Mr Burns in its gesture of gathering characters around a campfire to tell stories in the dark. In its mythologising and Shakespeare-ising of Trump, The 47th attributes far more to one man than perhaps it should. Trump is a symptom of a political moment, perhaps an opportunist who rode its wave, rather than the sole author of many of the regressive steps America is taking. Even three months on, some aspects of the play feel outdated. As horrifying as the January 6th Capitol attack was, the decline of liberalism is happening in courtrooms rather than on the streets. The January 6th investigation is still ongoing.

Bartlett’s play entertains in spades, and Carvel is impressively accurate while not hamstrung by the demands of the impression, yet Bartlett does not quite succeed in having the last word on Trump. It might be an attempt at a literary exorcism, but the real Trump – rather than just a realistic-looking one – remains elusive.

The 47th

Written by Mike Bartlett, Directed by Rupert Goold, Set Design by Miriam Buether, Costume Design by Evie Gurney, Lighting Design by Neil Austin, Sound Design by Tony Gayle, Original Music and Sound Score by Adam Cork, Video Design by Ash J Woodward, Movement Direction by Lynne Page, Starring Berte Carvel, Tamara Tunie, Lydia Wilson, David Carr, Joss Carter, Kaja Chan, James Cooney, Charles Craddock, Flora Dawson, Eva Fontaine, James Garnon, Richard Hansell, Oscar Lloyd, Jenni Maitland, Freddie Meredith, Ben Onwukwe, Cherrelle Skeete, David Tarkenter, Ami Tredrea, Simon Williams
Production Photographs by Marc Brenner
Reviewed 9th April 2022

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