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Theatre Review: The 47th is a yuge performance but a sad play

Bertie Carvel triumphs as Trump very much in spite of Mike Bartlett’s script, rather than because of it

Bertie Carvel as Donald Trump in The 47th at the Old Vic (Photo: Marc Brenner)

The 47th
Old Vic, London, until May 28

Bertie Carvel as Donald Trump in The 47th is the second great stage villain I’ve seen in as many months. The first was Andrew Woodall as the former Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre in Bloody Difficult Women. I happened to have written the second play, but I say this knowing only too well that it is actors – and not writers – who really bring these demonic characters alive.

Indeed, Carvel triumphs as Trump very much in spite of Mike Bartlett’s script, rather than because of it. Bartlett writes it once again in iambic pentameter – as he did with his earlier King Charles III – and, in all honesty, it just doesn’t work this time around. It slows down the action, makes what should be a very urgent piece of theatre seem oddly twee and it’s often just plain mystifying.

To complicate matters still further, Bartlett tries to shoehorn the story into Shakespeare’s King Lear in the early scenes and later attempts to make laboured parallels with the Bard’s other works, but these go absolutely nowhere. This is a playwright who is just plain showing off.

Still, Carvel’s Trump makes for a mesmerising spectacle: brilliantly bewigged and made-up and in an avocado-shaped fat suit, the actor is a dead ringer for the former president. He has his movements, way of holding himself, and, most of all, his voice – think of Liberace playing Dracula – down to a tee.

The play is set in 2024 when Joe Biden – a weirdly miscast Simon Williams – is confident about holding the White House, until Trump, the comeback pensioner, ambles into view. The supporting players – in addition to Williams, there is Tamara Tunie as Kamala Harris and Lydia Wilson as Ivanka – simply aren’t in Carvel’s league, and so the show, with no one for Carvel to spark against, is at its strongest during his long monologues.

An odd play, much too long for its own good, with nothing but the startlingly obvious to say for itself – “there are no rules,” Trump notes, portentously about modern politics at the end. Even with a director as experienced as Rupert Goold at the helm, there’s no disguising the fact this is a one-trick pony show.

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