Theatre

‘The 47th’ review – Mike Bartlett’s presidential thriller is a silly but sinister sideshow

★★★★

Mike Bartlett – of Doctor Foster fame – is something of a magician, pulling a Donald Trump-shaped rabbit out of a US presidential hat. In his newest prophetical play after 2014’s King Charles III (also directed by the Almeida’s Rupert Goold) Bartlett muses on the circumstances surrounding the 2024 presidential race – and you bet the controversial Republican has something to say about it.

He’s played by Matilda actor Bertie Carvel, who is chillingly unrecognisable as the politician – both in appearance (with huge props to Richard Mawbey on hair and makeup) and in mannerisms, licking his lips constantly and gesticulating at just the right moments so as to not be a caricature. It’s a jaw-dropping, incredible instance of an actor completely becoming another person, and you need to see it for yourself.

Bartlett doesn’t hold back from making Trump the comedic punching bag he always has been, and Carvel relishes in it. Emerging in a golf buggy – because of course – he addresses us as an audience. “I know, I know, you hate me,” he says, “So much right?” A few lines in Bartlett’s blank verse later and he’s insulting us with c-bombs. In the playwright’s imaginary future, Trump remains as shocking as ever, and as he reels off dialogue in a disorientating, almost Shakespearean structure, it’s easy to be mesmerised by the spectacle of it all.

Also exceptional in her delivery of the blank verse is Lydia Wilson, as a scheming Ivanka Trump. No stranger to the unconventional writing style – having taken on The Duchess of Malfi at the Almeida – Ms Trump is as manipulative with the verse as she is with the characters around her. If one is to further indulge in the Shakespeare comparisons, then Wilson’s Trump is one hell of a femme fatale.

As I’m left wondering if there’s any message in Bartlett’s work beyond amusing political predictions, then it’s perhaps a comment on the manipulation, illusion and deception behind US politics – a cynical argument that we simply haven’t been paying attention.

And there’s a lot to be dazzled by. At times the verse is jarring, rushed through with little time to process the developments, prompting a quick read of the playtext in the interval. One scene, which I learn is in the book but not the show, would have shed some light onto what was happening onstage beyond thin nods in the dialogue.

Meanwhile Miriam Buether’s set is ginormous, giving way to a giant projector screen and secondary office set downstage. Hovering above it all is a a lit halo, which is apt, given the nature of what audience members are witnessing and the sinister turns which follow. Unnerving scenes involving the QAnon Shaman – though highly unlikely to occur given he was hit with a 41-month jail sentence in November – are accompanied with overwhelming flashing imagery at the back of the stage it’s enough to make Ivo van Hove faint.

In amongst all of the chaos is a Kamala Harris (Tamara Tunie) questioning how to tame the toupéed beast for what could well be a second time. While Ivanka schemes for the Republicans, on the opposing side is the argument that Harris has been holding the fort for a (noticeably stammerless) Biden who is in decline. Another excellent casting decision, it’s fascinating watching Tunie as the current Vice President, assessing how to truly quash Trump’s dominion without pushing it even further.

It’s all part of a winding, twisting wrestle for power not far removed from the Bard’s own work, in which Bartlett clearly proves: what is politics these days but the most laughable theatre?

In mocking and confounding its audience, The 47th makes the case that in amongst such political absurdity, you can only laugh. Yet when big questions lie underneath the nonsense, Bartlett also asks who’s really laughing, and why. The answers to which are the greatest theatrical trick of all…

The 47th is now playing at the Old Vic Theatre until 28 May 2022.

A captioned performance will take place on 10 May, with an audio described performance on 16 May.


Production Images: Marc Brenner.

Disclaimer: I was invited to watch ‘The 47th’ for free in exchange for a review of the press night performance as a member of the media. I did not receive payment for this article and all opinions stated above are honest and my own.

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