Review: ‘The 47th’, a new drama by Mike Bartlett, now showing at The Old Vic, London

By Perry Miller

Trump was great. He got my vote from the moment he appeared on stage, driving a golf buggy and baiting the audience: ‘I know you hate me…Your hate is real and beautiful…You just can’t get enough of me.’

The year is 2024. Ted Cruz is the assumed Republican presidential candidate, facing off against an ever-frailer Joe Biden. But then Trump’s endorsement of Cruz turns into a paean of self-praise as he snatches the nomination for himself, Biden gets the frights and transfers power to Kamala Harris (she becomes the 47th) and the stage is set for Trump and Harris to do battle for the White House. That is the premise for The 47th, Mike Bartlett’s latest work, which is best described as an unsettling comedy.

Bertie Carvel plays Trump and steals – or maybe saves – the show. He flawlessly mimics the gait, the voice, the mannerisms of the original, is appropriately padded out and spray tanned (‘you all love people with a different skin tone, just not me’) and is fed the best lines. When he’s briefly languishing in jail, he sports a pink jumpsuit, and his affectations are suddenly the height of camp – Michael Douglas as Liberace in Behind the Candelabra came to mind.

You want Trump to be on stage when he’s not, you revel in every outrageous quip and zinger that come from his lips and he’s the one that some in the audience rose to their feet for at the end. All a bit troubling really, because – let’s be honest – that’s exactly how we reacted when he held office as 45th. We loathed him but hung off his every word and it was a sad day for many when he was unceremoniously booted off Twitter.

So far, so good. But I’m not convinced that the play works as a whole. It’s certainly comedic but also part Shakespearean: the script shifts into blank verse (iambic pentameter) whenever something momentous is happening – like a giant cue to the audience, saying ‘take note’. And just as when you go to see Shakespeare, the first five minutes or so of this language can be a little challenging, but the brain quickly kicks in.  It seemed a little forced and I felt that the play suffered for this: it’s 2 ½ hours long (with interval) and yet, at the end, it’s not clear how much has actually happened.

It could have been a comedy on Trump (and his offspring, including the ice queen Ivanka, brilliantly played by Lydia Wilson) from start to finish, or an end-to-end analysis of the state of the American psyche towards its democracy and institutions. It didn’t accomplish either, and in flitting between the two it created some flat moments where all I could do was look up at the ornate ceiling of the theatre and wait for them to pass.

At the play meandered towards its conclusion, taking in riots, jail, and a hospital death bed scene along the way, I guess I felt we were being asked the question: how does a paralysed establishment respond to someone who won’t conform to the normal rules? In this play, we see the White House sink to his level. No more ‘when they go low, we go high.’

Harris quotes the former congressman, John Lewis, as she wrestles with her options: ‘Freedom is not a state, it is an act. It is not some enchanted garden where we can all sit down and rest. Freedom is the continuous action we all must take.’

This November sees the mid-terms in the US. After that, the race to the presidency starts to grind into gear. Will there be a 47th in 2024? Will Trump deny Cruz the nomination? And, importantly, will Twitter rescind its ban?