Old Vic theatre, London
Mike Bartlett’s script turns US politics into Shakepearean comedy but falls oddly flat despite magnetising performances
Donald Trump’s inner circle has, in Mike Bartlett’s satire, turned into a Shakespearean court of a near future in which the former president is back in the game. The script, best in its granular moments of comedy, blends billionaire pomp with political chicanery, dynastic family drama and blank verse.
Trump arrives on stage in a golf buggy, throwing out a prologue after which his children stride on looking like expensively dressed accountants with lacquered helmet hair. Bertie Carvel’s Trump calls himself the devil and proceeds to have all the best lines. He also bears all the tics and inflections of the real Donald, encapsulating Trump’s swaggering facility to amuse and to showboat, to coin an offensive catchphrase and use it to best effect. Tamara Tunie as Kamala Harris is just as magnetising in her performance, exuding strength and bounce but, like Carvel, steers away from a simple Dead Ringers-style impersonation.
Like King Charles III, this play is partly spoken in iambic pentameter but despite the literary ingenuity in Bartlett’s script, it falls oddly flat. There is intelligent direction from Rupert Goold and a handsome set by Miriam Buether, which captures a courtly majesty. But the drama looks and feels like a conceptual riff rather than truly Shakespearean in its effects.
Carvel’s Trump has shades of Richard III but is also a King Lear of the late capitalist age, not carving up his kingdom between his children but setting up a contest with only one winner of his inheritance – the free market at work even in the shadow of his death.
At times it feels more like a sporting pastiche of Shakespeare’s tragedies than a barbed satire on Trumpian politics. A comically sleepwalking Joe Biden (Simon Williams) is reminiscent of Lady Macbeth, Ivanka Trump (Lydia Wilson) fulminates with a generic brand of filial betrayal and ambition in her soliloquies and the blinding of a secondary character for spying is a nod to the Earl of Gloucester in King Lear.
It is too literal in its central plotline too: set in 2024, Biden is on course for a second presidential run until Trump’s comeback and an attempted military coup. The rebellion on stage looks like a flashback rather than a flashforward, taking on the iconography of the storming of the Capitol, right down to the infamous bull horned headdress, although the movements of the braying mob here are choreographed in rather laboured, slow-motion sequences.
It is clear that this near future is a reenactment of the recent past with all the familiar accompanying narratives on the rise of American populism, from the arrogance of the liberal elite to the abandonment of the working people. There is even a subplot featuring siblings on either side of the political divide that plays out these arguments for good measure.
In its ideas the play cannot plumb enough depths to bring up anything new – perhaps we are still too close to the Trumpian moment for any greater wisdom to be mined. In its drama it lacks atmosphere and jeopardy, its pace slow in the second half and its ending flat.
There are some delightful lines in Bartlett’s script nonetheless and it is in these moments that the play sparkles: an incarcerated Trump in an orange jumpsuit gives his jailtime a PR spin by claiming it will endow him with a “cool Mandela feel” in the eyes of the people. His slanging matches and put downs of Biden, who he calls an “elderly wizard”. His eulogy of Machiavelli’s The Prince although he admits he hasn’t read it all because it was too long: “Someone summed it up, and it made sense.” And the moment when Harris tells Trump that his legacy is a farce: “You will be mocked if ever you will be remembered,” she says, and this play proves her point.
At the Old Vic, London, until 28 May