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Review: THE 47TH, The Old Vic

Mark Bartlett's play about a potential presidential race between Donald Trump and Kamala Harris opens at The Old Vic directed by Rupert Goold and starring Bertie Carvel.

The 47th

The 47thOne for the money, two for the show. The second play written by Mike Bartlett has now opened in London. With a revival of Cock running at the Ambassadors Theatre and Scandaltown debuting in Hammersmith next week, the playwright is quite the rarity in Theatreland.

With journalists comparing Bartlett to Stoppard, Pinter, or Hare, one thing is increasingly more certain: Bartlett is none else but Bartlett. Here, he tries to pull off a hat trick similar to his King Charles III, but the result is less impressive.

It's 2024, the United States is going to the polls and democracy is being threatened every step of the way. Donald Trump and Kamala Harris go head to head. Politics is a game, and the writer strives to reveal its true colours.

Director Rupert Goold reunites with Bartlett, who in turn writes for Bertie Carvel again. Old friends meet anew and deliver a magnetic performance joined by Tamara Tunie as Kamala Harris and Lydia Wilson as Ivanka Trump.

If Matilda suggested that prosthetics don't impact Carvel's acting prowess, The 47th establishes it. The actor is unrecognisable and, yet, he is so finely and unmistakably Bertie Carvel.

The down-turned lips, the excessive comb-over, the stance; he's sublime in his rendition of ex-President and ever-troublemaker Trump, even though, by the end, his act ends up being a trite impersonation of him. Bartlett gives the play a Shakespearean echo, writing in blank verse and referencing the Bard's structure throughout.

Trump has his children Don Jr, Eric, and Ivanka prove their worth to him in à la King Lear and there are plenty of weighty soliloquies worthy of a History Play. While Carvel portrays the clown with none of Falstaff's intent, the other characters have more of an edge to them.

It's a shame that the piece displays deeply set tonal issues. There's too much of an imbalance between the grand speeches spoken by the leading women, the movement-led allegorical interludes of the second act, and Carvel's tantrum-prone megalomaniac farce. Bartlett could have gone for satire, but opted for easy humour instead.

He goes for the cheap comedic jugular from the very start, painting the President Emeritus as a golf-playing buffoon. While the actor is hilarious in his gestures and precise in his bearing, there's very little character exploration in Bartlett's text. We could YouTube videos of Trump's addresses and get the same dramatic effect.

A severe, intense lack of depth pervades the piece. From a dazed Biden to a reluctant Kamala who only steps up for the good of the nation; from Trump's backstabbing sons to Ivanka's rebranding as astute hand, Bartlett's attempt at the humanisation of the American political élite falls short.

Kamala is resolute in the upholding of the law, Biden is hesitant to run again. Trump justifies the misdeeds of his Proud Boys and behaves like a child on a sugar high. For a play rooted in politics, there's an astounding dearth of it. While the Trump brood tries to avoid his father's fate, Kamala's office worry about the unlawfulness of their potential actions.

Surprisingly, there's very little analysis of the state of the United States, never mind the world. It becomes immediately clear that it was written at a (more simple, ironically) time, when Putin was still secretly pondering his attack on Ukraine. The latter gets a blink-and-you-miss-it mention and knowing look from Trump, but nothing more.

That's the danger in writing such a project: the world now transforms too quickly. Ultimately, this oversight, combined with the abstention from digging deep in the political fabric, comes off as myopic.

A good portion of the comedy present in the first act could be shaved off to the advantage of a more satirical look at the ongoing conditions of politics as well as the writer's fictionalised USA. Carvel/Bartlett's Trump would still get his chance at being the bozo and the show would gain some much needed insight.

Wilson's Ivanka Trump and Tunie's Kamala pierce through all the nonsense. It's their presence (and send-off) that gives a point to Goold's production. They control the game and, eventually, become this distorted token feminist icons.

Where Tunie is unimpeachably safe in her power suits and sensible heels, Wilson steals the scene (both fictional and actual) in stilettos that could puncture a man's lung and outfits to die for. Ivanka has her father sulking, impressed and envious of her oratory skills and learnt rhetoric.

James Garnon's tight-lipped chuckle of contempt as Ted Cruz is as amusing as Freddie Meredith's avoidance as Eric Trump, while Simon Williams is a tired, elderly, surrendering Joe Biden. Goold places the action on a stage as big as Trump's ego. Designed by Miriam Buether, the set is a large carpeted oval with a raised room upstage.

From a golf court, the space turns into a boardroom, a prison cell, and more with very little prop changes. There are some excellent moments, like Kamala's speech from the back office that has a young crowd gathering at the front; as the revolve spins to have them face her, they become Trump supporters ready for a meeting.

These fleeting instances of visual allegory pepper the performance, but clash with the general approach of the play. The "QAnon Shaman" who stormed the Capitol in January 2021 becomes the spirit of the riots. He incites the Proud Boys with animalistic dances and leads vivid flashes of symbolic meaning.

The 47th isn't the most enlightening of works and has clear issues in its tone and endgame, but it's exceptionally entertaining. Carvel is glorious in the role, and the comedic flair he brings to the game (albeit, as said, at odds with the rest of the themes) is clockwork.

It won't shine a light on anything political, but it's a laugh. It also quenches some of the sadistic, vengeful thoughts many of us had while Trump was in office. But that's a story for another day.

The 47th runs at The Old Vic until 28 May.

Photo credit: Marc Brenner

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