james debate
james debate

Saturday 21 May 2022

Directed by Rupert Goold
Written by Mike Bartlett
Starring Bertie Carvel, Tamara Tunie, Lydia Wilson
Theatre Old Vic

47 47th old vic donald ivanka trump biden kamala harris theatre 2022 bertie carvel charles
Even though his time in office has come to an end, it's clear that it will take some time for the world to shake the spectre of the 45th President from its collective consciousness. This fixation comes not just from a place of revulsion, but fascination. There are many out there who still yearn to understand, not just the man, but his following. How could such a person command a fervent and loyal base of support from so many? How could his reprehensible ideas and obvious nonsense find any measure of resonance, not just among the uninformed, but in some cases the intelligent and powerful? For all his controversies and corruption, Donald Trump remains a mystery that compels interest in even those who stand against him. The 47th indulges that fascination and in doing so crafts some superb entertainment, without ever really providing any deep new insights.

Politics makes for great theatre and indeed this is far from the first look at the 45th President that has graced the London stage. But politics can be tricky to get right, particularly when the subject matter is so current. Writer Mike Bartlett, fortunately, has a record of doing political theatre well. His most recent original West End show, Albion, made for an astute and memorable Brexit parable. But the 47th shares most of its DNA with what is arguably Bartlett's most notable work to date, King Charles III

King Charles III envisioned the succession of the British monarchy to a more politically inclined Charles interpreted as a Shakespearean court drama, even going so far as to be penned in blank verse. The 47th pulls much the same trick, imagining instead the succession to the Trump dynasty amid a hypothetical third run for office. But where King Charles III was a fairly straight-faced homage to Shakespeare, The 47th mostly uses those influences to comic effect, relishing the contrast between the stately Shakespearean form of language and the contemporary crudeness of Trump and his circle. Hearing these characters lace an eloquent monologue with inelegance and references to the likes of Selling Sunset and Lin Manuel Miranda is inherently humorous. In an odd way, Trump's nonsequitious manner of diction fits well with this style. His constant asides and tangents are reminiscent, as indeed the play itself notes at one point, of Shakespearean characters playing to an audience during a monologue.

If King Charles III was an homage, The 47th often feels more like a pastiche. Rather than simply being a modern play in the classical style, the plot here lifts heavily from specific plays, with very clear lifting of narratives and characters from the likes of King Lear, Macbeth, Richard III and Julius Caesar. Trump's offspring vying for his patronage, Joe Biden's fretful sleepwalking, Ivanka Trump's machiavellian scheming, even some directly borrowed dialogue ("for Ted Cruz is an honourable man"). Where Bartlett saw serious Shakespearean drama in the succession to Elizabeth II, here he sees pomposity and self-aggrandisement ripe for the mocking. 

If it is perhaps all a bit too knowing and wry, it's hugely entertaining, Bertie Carvel's swaggering performance in particular. But aside from tantalising brief glimpses into the psyche of Trump himself offers little in the way of fresh insight as to the movement or people behind him. The depiction of public unrest and insurrection inspired by Trump feels more like a retelling of the January 6th attempted coup than any kind of prophecy, right down to the lifting of imagery from that day (the buffalo-horned shaman even makes an appearance). The 47th depicts vast masses of people enthralled by conspiracy theories and lies without ever really asking why. It reminds us of the threat Trump poses to democracy, but doesn't really extrapolate further from that point in the way that King Charles III did. 

Where The 47th does ask compelling questions is in how far one can go in order to defend what is right and just. As Trumpism ravages the nation in carnage and chaos, those who stand against him are faced with the dilemma of how to counteract his movement. Continue to play by the rules and likely lose out to his dirty tactics, or compromise your principles and lower yourself to his level. It presents a sort of Faustian dilemma wherein whichever choice you make, you lose. Either maintain your ideals and lose the fight, or win the fight but in doing so validate the anarchic worldview you stand against.
The show ends with the sting in the tail that posits Ivanka may be the more dangerous Trump, similar to King Charles III's final act depiction of Kate Middleton. But whereas King Charles III fully demonstrated Kate's ruthless ambition and machiavellian scheming, that really isn't felt in this instance. We see Ivanka briefly demonstrate her political nous, before being largely overpowered by her father's chaotic whims. We don't really see anything to suggest that she has that capability, so this parting message rings somewhat hollow.

The 47th is an immaculately presented piece of theatre marked by a spellbinding central performance. But much like its subject matter, it is gaudy and designed to elicit a visceral reaction, rather than a true exploration.

Newer Post Older Post Home