“The 47th”: The Old Vic

Jeremy Malies in Waterloo

The near future in vaguely Shakespearian blank verse appears to have plenty of mileage in it. Mike Bartlett has followed up his Charles III with The 47th in which we see a new American president. The year is 2024, and an enfeebled Joe Biden (who knew?) is preparing to fight an election against 2016 candidate for the Republican nomination Ted Cruz. But a new if familiar player enters the field either seeking the principal job himself or posturing as king maker.

 

Bertie Carvel as Donald Trump. Photo credit: Marc Brenner.

 

This is a tour de force for two-times Olivier winner Bertie Carvel as Donald Trump. It isn’t just mimicry (though the voice, hand gestures, posture, and general body language are all carbon copies) but inventive detailed acting of the highest order that anchors what is at times a stodgy play.

I’m fairly mid-Atlantic, a politics junkie, and even a golfer (we first meet Carvel as Trump putts a ball off the stage at the Mar-a-Lago course,) but my attention wandered frequently and I’m at a loss to understand why director Rupert Goold (who also helmed Charles III) didn’t work with Bartlett to trim a few scenes.

This is an anti-Trump issue play and of course Orange Man deserves a drubbing, while the attacks on the Capitol (vividly presented by the ensemble here) should be called out. But I was amazed that Kamala Harris (another piece of creative interpretation and brilliant imitation by Tamara Tunie) should have got off so lightly. This is a woman with a vicious record as a prosecutor at state and federal level who told Biden that he was a racist when seeking the nomination herself and laughed it off later saying: “But it was only a debate.” Not enough from Bartlett on all this even when Harris is taunting an imprisoned Trump. And there is barely any mention of Hunter Biden’s indiscretions.

 

Cherrelle Skeete as Tina Flournoy. Photo credit: Marc Brenner.

 

Goold once told me in an interview that Shakespearian verse (and much of Bartlett’s dialogue smacks of Macbeth and King Lear) is well suited to an American accent of the game-show hostess type and this is the mode of delivery used by Lydia Wilson as Ivanka Trump. Her character is Machiavellian (Donald has realized this, saying he once tried to read The Prince but found it too long) and she impresses when consigning the useless Donald Jnr and Eric Trump (Oscar Lloyd and Freddie Meredith both suitably gormless) to obscurity and modest pensions. Carvel and Wilson contrive to indicate that there is a way to put your arm around your daughter’s waist and a way not to. The infamous “If Ivanka weren’t my daughter, perhaps I’d be dating her” line could have usefully found its way in.

The outstanding casting and acting go right down to number eleven, and I was taken with Joss Carter as Jake Angeli, the antlered QAnon shaman who became totemic (for some) during the Capitol attack of last year. He fills the theatre with menace as he gyrates in a predatory manner behind Ivanka who you would guess could handle herself in a scrap. Group movement from actors playing rednecks is wonderful here.

 

Tamara Tunie as Kamala Harris. Photo credit: Marc Brenner.

 

Miriam Buether takes no risks with her set but it’s competent and unobtrusive; the performing space is a raised revolve which serves as everything from a putting green to a negotiating and war room table. There is a recess across the breadth of the back wall of the stage onto which is projected video montages of campaign rallies and a map of swing states for election pundits. A giant ellipse is in the ceiling; it could be a crown or the oval of the Oval Office. Neil Austin’s lighting design uses red and blue filters to emphasize patriotic flags and livery.

So why doesn’t all this gel? Does Bartlett spend too much time preaching to the choir? Some of the political humour is arcane and – in contrast with the broader humour – it barely produced a titter from an audience that seemed markedly less American than under the Kevin Spacey regime. A flaccid monologue by a nurse at Trump’s bedside would be removed by any play doctor who wasn’t invested in the project, and the fictional journalist Charlie Takahashi (played by James Cooney) is a lazy device inserted to advance political arguments with the character at no time fleshed out. There is no real ending just a limp trailing-off in which Kamala Harris is left with some weighty responsibilities. A disappointment, and that for somebody who was rooting for the play’s success throughout.

 

The ensemble inc. Joss Carter as the shaman. Photo credit: Marc Brenner.