Cultural reimaginings of the past are fairly commonplace; Robert Harris’s Fatherland wonders what the 1960s would have been like had Germany won the Second World War, Stephen Fry supposes the direction of the twentieth century had Hitler never existed at all in Making History while Dr Who is forever warning his or her companions of the consequences of meddling with historical timelines. But playwright Mike Bartlett has made a bit of an art out of notions of the counter-factual future, an oxymoron perhaps as those facts cannot possibly exist yet, but in Charles III and now in The 47th at the Old Vic, Bartlett grounds his flights of fancy in the knowledge of institutions, people and political tides rooted in the past and present, asking not only from what vantage point should we study contemporary events but when does the future become history?
The 47th is a both a parody and a warning about that future, and while fictionalised Donald Trump’s decision to run for re-election in 2024 may lend itself to easy spoof, Bartlett sets himself the same challenges as he did with Charles III, setting almost the entire play in iambic pentameter and drawing on grand Shakespearean structures to shape this story of dynastic rivalry, power, war and hubris. Capulet vs Montague, The Wars of the Roses, Egyptians vs Romans, Republican vs Democrat, Bartlett creates two great houses through which to explore his themes, deftly moving between camps while building anticipation for a decisive meeting between the rival leaders.
But Bartlett also finds layers of subterfuge, betrayal, resentment and vengeful desires within the family unit, placing the subtle but decisive effects of anguish and rivalries within The Trumps that have classic Shakespearean consequences. Like Richard III and his brothers, Lear’s daughters and Hamlet’s step-father-uncle issues, The 47th draws on tools and structures that Shakespeare employed to unpick the darker underbelly of family relationships in which loyalty and obedience are demanded by blood but rarely given without resentment. And it is this creation of different waves of activity, subplots and themes working through the grandiose framework that bring character depth and gravitas to a play that deals with a man who has become a caricature in an imagined future scenario.
The use of iambic pentameter is distinctive and, like Shakespeare, it is most noticeably spoken by those with elite status, defined by their membership of the inner circle – either as politicians, advisors or intellectuals. A handful of scenes set among the ordinary American Trump supporters use prose as well as stylised and choreographed movement to distinguish the different perspective and vocabulary of these encounters. Although audiences are more used to verse in contemporary plays since Charles III premiered in 2014 with recent successes like Cyrano de Bergerac‘s spoken word and street forms levelling the use of poetic rhythm and vocabulary to convey meaning across an entire show, Bartlett’s writing remains conversational despite the linguistic structures underpinning it, only occasionally ringing a duff note and stiffly drawing attention to itself.
Bartlett also plays with snatches of the Shakespeare canon, lifting concepts or scenarios from specific works, leaving the audience to spot the references. In one of the earliest scenes when Trump is choosing his heir, the writer of course looks to King Lear for an equivalent scene as each Trumpian child states their case for inheriting the mantle. Later Trump himself briefly reaches for the glorious rhetoric of Mark Antony’s funeral speech when he predictably betrays Ted Cruz and turns his audience into a baying mob. There are nods to Macbeth and again to Julius Caesar in the subsequent curse of Cruz’s wife Heidi that brings with it a driving destructive inevitability that defines the rest of the play, while the same influences feed into a Joe Biden sleepwalking scene filled with subconscious trauma. Trump’s own behaviour leans into both Iago and Richard III as his desire for self-preservation brings betrayal upon betrayal. Bartlett employs these nods subtly and sometimes comically, creating confederacy with the omnipotent audience who becomes increasingly complicit with the writer.
Trump himself retains the same ambiguous position in the show that he did in political life, a figure of fun much of the time whose delusions of grandeur offer a warped perspective, but nonetheless a powerful and dominating personality. Regardless of whether anyone in the play respects him or even agrees with his decisions, Bartlett finds the menace that he poses, the straightforward and disruptive charm that appeals to his voting base as well as the tricks of the orator whose bullish approaches to conversation, which rarely require a second voice, demand status. He may be ridiculous but you cannot ignore Donald Trump. The audience may laugh but that’s how he gets in.
And this is how Barlett takes the audience into this imagined story, looking at the morality of political decision-making and the extent to which Trump’s detractors can only truly defeat him by employing the same shady tactics as the 45th President. For those in public office, where should you draw the line between upholding an ethical and decent approach to problem solving and making dubious sacrifices for the greater good? The challenge that Barlett’s Democratic Party members face in The 47th is whether to heed Shakespeare’s advice in The Merchant of Venice – ‘to do a great right do a little wrong’ – and compromise themselves in order to save America.
The context for this within the story is instigated via another big thematic question about the nature of democracy and its protection. This plays out first through Trump’s insistence on throwing out the rule book at every turn, defying debate protocol and tearing up political structures to install cut-throat business practices in their place. His early betrayal of Cruz, the carving-up of the family fortune and his single-minded pursuit of a personal agenda that concentrate wealth and power in his own hands, tearing at the foundations of American public life including the two-term limit for Presidents are all traits grounded in behaviours and opinions expressed by the real Trump in the last six years. And Bartlett doesn’t aim for cheap laughs here, recognising the allure for the powerless of a man who wants to bring a whole system crashing down even if the one he builds in its place is closer to despotism. The notes on equivalent antidemocratic tendencies in Britain’s current Government do not pass unnoticed.
Using Shakespeare’s structural model, Bartlett uses public disorder, violence and chaos as the culminatory vehicle to explore democratic systems as off-stage events shape the actions of the political elite. Like the climactic wars in Antony and Cleopatra, Richard III and particularly Coriolanus, Bartlett creates opportunities for characters on both sides of the political divide to reflect on the causes, consequences and unfolding drama of civil unrest incited by Trump to smooth his path to power. Crisis meetings, plots and plans are mixed with movement pieces featuring riotous Americans led by a shaman that explore the role of mob rule and public protest in the rapid breakdown of democracy. The consequences of populism and Trump’s Joker-like enjoyment of the mayhem he unleashes would have seemed all-too fantastical a few year ago but after the events of January 2021, Bartlett warns that democracy is as fragile as ever and destructive forces are ever-ready to unleash.
Staged by Rupert Goold at the Old Vic, The 47th transforms its traditional proscenium arch into a jutting circular stage that evicts the first few rows of seating and brings the action into the auditorium. While the character of Trump needs little help in drawing attention to himself, Goold brings balance, giving space to other characters who are democratically given soliloquies, asides to the audience and opportunities for political speechifying. On Miriam Buether’s set with its walkways, staircases and back offices, it evokes the feel of the oval office and the complex corridors of power as well as the very public platform that the characters have to speak to the nation. And its big enough to drive on the full scale golf cart that opens the show.
With Barlett’s interest in the boundary between public and private, particularly within the Trump family, Goold frequently employs phone camera technology projected onto the back wall in grainy, distorted black and white as scenes are captured and relayed through social media, an instrument of public goading and insurrection given energy by Adam Cork’s composition and Neil Austin’s atmospheric lighting design. And as these wider elements unfold, the spotlight that Trump claims for himself slowly shifts as Goold brings the decisive figures of Kamala Harris and Ivanka Trump into focus.
Tamara Tunie’s Kamala Harris is the rational, reasonable epicentre of the show and truly Bartlett’s focus. A background figure as Vice President initially treated like a ‘flunkey’ by Trump, The 47th is really about Kamala grappling with duty and the dirty side of power. Tunie is superb, slowly assuming a central position in the play, charting the rise of Harris that brings a feeling of order, calm and rationality to the havoc both within the political system and on the streets of her country. Whether she will succumb to the temptation to use Trump’s methods against him, as the only means of defeat, is a question Bartlett poses on several occasions but Tunie’s dignified and collected performance is really the one to watch.
Lydia Wilson’s Ivanka faces that exact quandary as she too faces the impact of her father’s actions and the testing of her own limits of power. Ivanka is an ambiguous figure for much of the story, a clear killer instinct that quickly dispenses with her rival brothers (a good comedy pairing of Oscar Lloyd and Freddie Meredith as Donald Jnr and Eric) to assume the role of heir, but in later heeding her oldest brother’s warning, the ways in which Ivanka’s approach to dispensing authority and the most legitimate path to power drives a wedge between her and Trump. Wilson takes those cues to create a character who may also be underestimated but will allow little to stand in her way.
Bertie Carvel has taken on two of the biggest political figures of the last 50 years and after winning plenty of plaudits as James Graham’s version of Rupert Murdoch in Ink, his Trump goes beyond a surface imitation to look for the drivers beneath. While there are no surprising revelations – a competitive nature, a blatant sexism and disregard for other opinions and a degree of self-assurance that even Narcissus would baulk at – Carvel finds the switch that makes him so popular, eliciting plenty of laughs from the audience that explain Trump’s appeal entirely. Wearing facial prosthetics and a wig created by Richard Mawbey, it is the kind of extraordinary physical transformation usually seen on film, but Carvel’s Trump has Lear-like rages and a certain inevitability to his trajectory (certainly with Heidi Cruz’s curse hanging over him) but why ordinary people support him is exactly the button Carvel is able to push.
The 47th does have a Shakespearean predictability but when the time comes it slightly fizzles out, and having built a context of conflict and disorder, the conclusion is far smaller in scale than Shakespeare would have chosen. The subplots also suffer as a result, particularly James Cooney’s political aide infiltrating the opposition with Earl of Gloucester overtones. Bartlett is perhaps making the point that for all Trump’s bombast, the conclusion of this story may well be far more muted than dramatic cliché might suggest, but the end does feel a little underpowered on stage. Nonetheless, the race to be the 47th President is just around the corner and Bartlett’s plays distils the events of recent years and encourages us to think carefully about their consequence. In homage to Shakespeare, Bartlett’s smart counter-factual future is a great piece of theatre and while its predictions may seem hopeless, it offers a few surprises along the way.