In Mike Bartlett’s latest Shakespearean pastiche, The 47th (at London’s Old Vic Theatre), the British playwright gooses the House of Trump in iambic pentameter—in the sly, gleeful way he did with the House of Windsor in his successful King Charles III. But, here, in Bertie Carvel’s barnstorming embodiment of Trump, the audience is not only faced with an astonishing replica of his big-bellied barbarity, but with the equally unsettling prospect of his second run for the Oval Office in 2024.
It’s hard to imagine a better setup than Trump as the equivalent of Elizabethan terror and elation—at once tragic and comic. The play’s ambition is not so much prophecy as punishment for Trump’s malign subversion of democracy. If the American legal system can’t yet hold Trump to account for his sedition and corruption, the public is certainly hankering for justice. Bartlett understands this, and plays off it.
In Trump’s first soliloquy, echoing the vindictive malevolence of Richard III, Bartlett lets Trump, the ultimate con man, show the audience his trick and then plays it on them. “I know, I know. You hate me. So much, right? / My face, this hair, my wife, you loathe the way / I hold my hand, when making points. My lips?,” he says, in his high-pitched first words, going on to call out the ecstasy of liberal sanctimony. He continues: “But you can’t turn away. / You all adore my entertainment.”
Trump is the ultimate nihilistic incarnation of social media’s “demand for crazy,” as Barack Obama put it, a numbed culture’s craving for constant excitement and for feeling. To Trump, the electorate are suckers; his thrill is winning public trust, and screwing the public at the same time.
If nothing else, Trump instinctively understands the dynamic of being sensational: that is, how to make the idea of himself felt. “Here I am: Your devil. Oven-hot,” he says, adding, “So eat your popcorn, settle down, listen hard / And watch, forget your heart, instead give me / Your gut (that’s if you have one left) / You democratic motherfucking cunts.”
By framing this contemporary story as a Shakespearean history play, Bartlett inevitably draws a comparison to the Elizabethan theater and to its appetite for harrowing stories with “the fortissimo eloquence of inner lives magnificently tortured,” as the poet Ted Hughes once put it.
Bartlett’s Trump stands before us in his golfing gear, a brute in brogues, emblematic of the thoughtlessness he has promoted among the booboisie he calls his base. Onstage, Trump has no inner life, just external frenzy. The only fortissimo thing about him is his relentless bombast.
The audience is not only faced with an astonishing replica of his big-bellied barbarity, but with the equally unsettling prospect of his second run for the Oval Office.
Trump won his first presidency promising to “drain the swamp”—instead he swamped the drain. His legacy is a never-ending tale of infamy. His dark backstory hangs over the playful evening like a threatening sky and strangely feeds the exhilaration of the saga’s apocalyptic tone.
There is riot onstage, and there is blood, but the only blood the audience longs for is Trump’s. Bartlett’s literary pleasure is making Trump pay for his heartless stupidity; the audience’s pleasure is imagining Trump finally dispatched. In a way, The 47th is some kind of bear pit with the baying beast brought to its knees and at the end lying facedown dead in the arena. It’s an ugly, rousing, cathartic spectacle.
Where Shakespeare’s hair-raising eloquence could wrench imagination out of the audience’s head, Bartlett can’t claim such linguistic legerdemain or talent for complexity. He needs, and gets, a lot of scenic help to make dynamic Trump’s vainglorious maneuvering for a second term. Miriam Buether’s cunning set—a circle of white neon above the slightly raked spare stage and another white neon frame around an upstage window—turns out to hold a whole bag of scenic surprises, including rear projections and a revolve.
But the best stage picture is the first. At the play’s opening beat, a golf pin rises from underneath the empty stage, and a golf cart carrying Trump rolls slowly into view. Instead of the robust hurly-burly of the Elizabethan world, we are plunged immediately into the winded, manicured suburban bubble of the 21st-century American leisure class.
Trump takes his time lining up his putt, which also gives the audience time to take in Carvel’s ravishing masquerade. As Trump, Carvel overshoots the hole; as an actor, however, he misses nothing in Trump’s bow-wow behavior: the finger-wagging, the clenched left fist, the thrusting chin, the black heart.
The plot turns on an embittered Trump vowing to take revenge for being “forced from my rightful house” by the “commander-in-thief,” that “doddering, damp’ning squib,” Joe Biden (Simon Williams), a character whose legitimate qualities Bartlett won’t dramatize, sending him up only as an aged, sleepwalking wimp. “Be better, please,” Biden says to Trump at Jimmy Carter’s funeral. “O.K., I’ll try. Thanks, Dad” is Trump’s insolent reply.
In actual fact, more jobs were created in the first 100 days of Biden than in any presidency since records began in 1939; unemployment is down to a 50-year low; and the national deficit—which Trump ran up to $7.8 trillion in his four years—is set to drop by over a trillion dollars. In Bartlett’s telling, however, Biden’s just a performing public workhorse, begging to be put out to pasture, swearing in Vice President Kamala Harris (Tamara Tunie) as party leader to fight the Democratic presidential cause in 2024, which is nothing less than to preserve the Constitution and the democracy.
Inevitably in this merry-go-round of betrayal—Trump sees off the Republican-primary front-runner, Ted Cruz (James Garnon); shafts his opportunistic family, including slinky Ivanka (Lydia Wilson); the social X-ray he chooses as his V.P. forms a militia to retake power, and for a time, by presidential directive, is locked up as “a clear and present danger” to the nation—there is a lot of exposition and speechifying.
Rupert Goold, one of England’s boldest stage directors, deftly steers the production over these narrative hurdles, giving an exciting visual shellac to the proceedings. Any representation of a riot is hard to manage onstage, but Goold creates a fluid kinetic evocation of mayhem, which looks mightily like the January 6 Capitol riot, right down to the horned, tattooed “QAnon Shaman.” He’s a poetic symbol of anarchy in the play, but in life, as Jacob Chansley, he’s serving three years in prison for his folly.
Shakespeare had a vocabulary of about 31,000 words, which means that the majority of his audience couldn’t understand much of what the actors were saying. Nonetheless, the tragic frenzy onstage illuminated and lightened the violent world they inhabited.
The same is true for the spectators of The 47th, who may not get all the tumble of words that are sometimes poorly projected, but, nonetheless, get the picture. At the finale, Trump’s lack of compassion, his greed, his abuse of power, are turned back on him in a hospital room where he’s wired up to a heart monitor. He’s begging for care that will never come. He’s offering his millions for a nurse to save his life. With no family around him, he falls dead, spewing his toxic vainglory. “The Reaper is a loser. God? His son? / Just comfort for the huddled meek!”
Bartlett’s play ends with Harris as president and with Ivanka Trump waiting in the wings to infect the body politic with her father’s authoritarian poison. “I’d hoped we’d finally see some light but yet, / Another seems to follow in its wake / So having fought to end the father’s war, / Should I have feared his daughter’s more?,” Harris muses in the play’s final speech.
Bartlett knows the answer is “Yes.” And the final laugh is one with cold teeth. Trump may be dead onstage, but the toxin of his rapacity is real and lives on in the Republican Party’s willingness to destroy democracy—a violent drama still to be written, which is no laughing matter.
In The 47th, Bartlett’s pastiche of Elizabethan tragedy is giddy with despair over American politics; in his other new London play, Scandaltown (at the Lyric Hammersmith, directed by Rachel O’Riordan), a pastiche of Restoration comedy, he’s just giddy.
Bartlett’s play ends with Harris as president and with Ivanka Trump waiting in the wings.
A handsome period banner hangs from a painted blue cloud in front of the proscenium curtain, announcing, “Mr. Bartlett’s new, derivative and inadvisable comedy.” Bartlett’s Restoration conceit is clever. The Puritans closed down theater for 18 years; the coronavirus closed it down for 2. Where Restoration comedy brought the shock of new liberality; the post-coronavirus shock is the new Puritanism. (The production has both an intimacy coach and a gender consultant.) But, oddly, Bartlett steers mostly clear of this gnarly cultural issue and sticks mainly to the easygoing libertine side of things: sex, drugs, and social-media trolling.
In The 47th, most of the characters have a history and an ideology that the audience knows and the stage debates. In Scandaltown, the characters have humors but no psychology. As a result, they have no emotional traction. No matter how hard the actors huff and puff to make their opinions vivid, we just don’t care. Phoebe Virtue is virtuous; Lady Susan Climber is a social climber; Hannah Tweetwell is a social-media influencer; and Freddie Peripheral is, well, a small part. That’s all you need to know, and that’s more or less all you get. The play has as much wallop as a popgun.
John Lahr is a Columnist for AIR MAIL and the first critic to win a Tony Award, for co-authoring Elaine Stritch at Liberty