In Review

The 47th at the Old Vic: ‘rarely less than entertaining’

Play is set in an imagined near-future – Biden has stepped down in favour of Kamala Harris

Already a “cartoonish villain” to some, Donald Trump is “turned into an electrifying caricature of Shakespearean chaos” at the Old Vic, said Quentin Letts in The Sunday Times. As in Mike Bartlett’s previous work, King Charles III, The 47th is set in an imagined near-future – in this case, a US election in which President Biden has stepped down in favour of Kamala Harris, and Trump (Bertie Carvel) is scheming to prise the Republican nomination from Ted Cruz.

The play is written in “cod-Shakespearean” blank verse. Bored in Florida, after his eviction from the White House, Trump says: “Four years lonely exile hence, behold as I begin my just revenge.” Heralds come and go, and there are echoes of Richard III, Macbeth and Julius Caesar in the plot. It doesn’t all work, but what makes the play so “refreshing” is that it takes Trump seriously. This is not just a lazy attack on a demagogue; Bartlett acknowledges “something of his electoral genius”, and seeks to shed light on his appeal.

Alas, the Shakespeare play that came to my mind was Much Ado About Nothing, said Dominic Cavendish in The Daily Telegraph. Director Rupert Goold has made everything slick and shiny, and Carvel is sensational as Trump. But it’s an unsatisfying concoction; the plot verges on “preposterous”, and there are moments when the production feels more like an extended student “skit” than a meaty drama.

Bartlett has tried to have things both ways, said David Benedict in Variety: he has sought to weave “sharp jabs and jokes” into a “serious, developed portrait of the dangers facing American democracy” – and doesn’t pull it off. Still, his sheer “audacity” – combined with some gripping performances – makes The 47th “rarely less than entertaining”.

Carvel’s turn alone is “worth the price of a ticket”, agreed Susannah Clapp in The Observer. This is “not so much an impersonation as a reincarnation, as if Carvel himself has completely vanished and in his place something that seems barely human – a wax model perhaps – has been given palpable life”. He’s funny, frightening, eerie and plausible: it’s an unmissable performance.

The Old Vic, London SE1. Until 28 May

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