The 47th, Old Vic review: A hideously transformative turn from Bertie Carvel as Trump

Bertie Carvel as Donald Trump in The 47th (Marc Brenner)
Bertie Carvel as Donald Trump in The 47th (Marc Brenner)

You can’t fault the ambition or the sheer craft of Mike Bartlett’s blank-verse drama about a Trump rerun against Kamala Harris in 2024. But despite an astonishing, hideously transformative central performance from Bertie Carvel as the tangerine narcissist, the show lands disappointingly.

The Shakespearean echoes – Lear, Macbeth, Richard III, Julius Caesar – are too pat, the dramatic events a rehash of the most egregious elements of Trump’s original campaign and his four years in power. Rupert Goold’s production is slick but also oddly weedy: attempts to capture the atmosphere of a rally, an insurrection or even a White House crisis meeting look thin.

Miriam Buether’s set is a huge, tilted circular platform, mirrored by an illuminated halo above, reminiscent of the War Room in Dr Strangelove. Onto it drives Carvel’s Trump in a golf cart, encased in flabby prosthetics and with a quiff as rigid as a frisbee. “I know, I know, you hate me,” he preens: this Trump breaks the Fourth Wall, rather than erecting new ones.

Carvel’s performance is uncanny, if parodic. He perfectly captures Trump’s physical tics – the mewling lips, the prissy gestures – as well as the carping, monomaniac bleat. There are terrific performances too from a charismatic Tamara Tunie as Harris, promoted to president when Simon Williams’s doddery Joe Biden falls mysteriously ill after shaking Trump’s hand at Jimmy Carter’s funeral: and from an icy Lydia Wilson as Ivanka, a ruthless dominatrix Barbie with ironed hair and a wardrobe full of bodycon dresses and spike heels.

Tamara Tunie as Kamala Harris in The 47th (Marc Brenner)
Tamara Tunie as Kamala Harris in The 47th (Marc Brenner)

She and her dad form a quasi-incestuous, quasi-transactional alliance to vanquish Ted Cruz, a weak Don Jr and a positively child-like Eric and turn American democracy into a dynasty. Characters that might complicate this simple narrative, like Melania Trump, Jared Kushner, or any other senior Republicans, are left conveniently out of the script. Even accepting we’re in a heightened, distilled reality, some of the narrative turns beggar belief.

The divisions within America are baldly represented by an apparently Japanese-American, MAGA-fan chauffeur and her brother, a liberal, New York Times journalist. He turns out to be the worst undercover reporter ever, and pays a symbolic price. Playing a Proud Boy-style activist, James Garnon distills Trumpian conspiracy theories into a single, handy speech. I suspect late rewrites took place. A revised cast list suggests Barack Obama and George Bush have been written out, while necessary references to Russia, Ukraine and China have clearly been added in.

Bartlett’s previous verse drama with Goold, 2014’s King Charles III, was an imaginative and prescient leap forward into the constitutional future of the royal family. By contrast, Bartlett has nothing to top Trump’s blatant assaults on democracy and decency, so merely repeats them. Even the “QAnon shaman” of the Capitol riot rears his horned head again. The language and staging of The 47th is eloquent and clever, but it has surprisingly little to say about a monster so huge.

Old Vic, until 28 May; buy tickets here