Painting Trump’s potential bid for a second term of presidency as a Shakespearean historical, Mike Bartlett warns of the dangers to democracy that Trump poses, though it’s nothing the audience don’t already know
The spiritual successor to 2014’s King Charles III, Mike Bartlett once again uses Shakespearean free verse to tell the cautionary tale of the modern collapse of American democracy in The 47th. Replete with many allusions to Shakespearean tales, The 47th succeeds in its terrifyingly accurate depiction of Trump, though doesn’t offer any elevation beyond the acts he has already committed, and doesn’t shock the audience perhaps in the ways that it intended to.
The free verse certainly gives the events a certain sense of grandeur that a typical play wouldn’t have afforded, making the possibility of another run for America’s most controversial president play like a historical tragedy. There’s a competition which Trump sets for his children to decide upon his successor (King Lear) and a restless, sleepwalking Joe Biden (Macbeth), not to mention the relentlessly unsettling Shaman, based upon the QAnon insurgent Jacob Chansley at the 2021 Capitol attack, representing the fanatical, animalistic, unbridled id that Trump encourages within the American public.
The 47th details the imagined, future events of the next US presidential election as Kamala Harris (Tamara Tunie) and Donald Trump (Bertie Carvel) vie for office, with Harris determined to play fair and Trump fully demonstrating the immense threat he poses for American democracy in refusing to play by the rules.
Both the writing and Bertie Carvel’s performance entirely encapsulate the public persona of Donald Trump. From the floppy hair, facial expressions and incredibly expressive hands, the image is so spot on it creates much involuntary derision. All of the worst features of Trump are on display here, but most of all, he is painted as a Shakespearean villain, his ruthless, self-obsessed ambition driving him closer and closer towards his downfall. Through writing this play, Bartlett hoped to engage with the threat posed by Trump to American democracy, unable to think of a way to defeat it. Here, the threat that Trump poses is made clear, though there certainly could have been more of a narrative thrust against him.
Miriam Buether’s set is inventive and minimal, creating the feel of a Shakespearean play. A late monologue by a COVID nurse is a standout moment, giving a much needed personal touch for the audience, as she condemns Trump for his lack of action at the start of the pandemic and his continued downplaying of the ramifications of his decisions.
Where The 47th falls down is the fact that the audience are unable to be shocked by Trump’s actions anymore and, depressingly, the moves made by him in the play are no more shocking than what he has already done. The most chaotic moments of the show are almost a re-enactment of the storming of the Capitol, even down to the presence of the Shaman. Ultimately, the ending leaves the audience on more of a confusing note than a satisfactory one, refusing to make any clear judgement or message on Trump and his ideals.
It almost feels as if the play were written for Trump’s detractors in the first place. Any Trump supporters watching the show may not come away from it with a changed opinion, or feeling like the portrayal of Trump was damning enough, because it almost hues too close to the truth. Here is truly a situation of truth being stranger than fiction and as such begs the question as to the ultimate purpose of this theatrical piece. With no clear message or warning, it more feels like an observation that many audience members are already keenly aware of.
The 47th is running at the Old Vic Theatre until 28th May. Tickets can be booked here.