Bertie Carvel is brilliant in The 47th, Mike Bartlett’s ingenious play about the former US president, but the real parallel is not with the Bard’s kings but his hollow braggarts
If you want to satirise a power figure or a political movement, you automatically reach for Shakespeare. Theatrical history is littered with examples. In 1937, Orson Welles staged a modern-dress Julius Caesar that evoked the worlds of Nazi Germany and fascist Italy. In 1941, Bertolt Brecht used Richard III as a template for his anti-Hitlerian The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. In 1966, Barbara Garson’s MacBird! daringly suggested that Lyndon Johnson was a modern Macbeth implicated in the death of JFK. So it is hardly surprising that writers and directors turn to the Bard in depicting Donald Trump.
The current example is Mike Bartlett’s The 47th at the Old Vic, which uses King Lear, Julius Caesar and Richards II and III to try and nail the Trump phenomenon: although highly ingenious, it is hardly likely to cause controversy. The opposite was the case when, in 2017, the New York Public Theater’s annual summer Shakespeare in the Park production was a Julius Caesar in which the tyrant was a blond-quiffed figure with a Slovenian-accented wife: a conspirator even argued that the Romans loved him so much that they would forgive him “if Caesar had stabbed their mothers on Fifth Avenue”. Such was the uproar over the assassination of the Trump-like Caesar that two of the Public Theater’s sponsors pulled their support. That production features prominently in a book by Jeffrey R Wilson unequivocally entitled Shakespeare and Trump.
I can understand the temptation to look to the man from Stratford to explain the disruptive politician from Queens. My problem is that Trump lacks the reflectiveness, the rhetoric, the political acumen and the psychological complexity of Shakespeare’s tragic heroes and emblematic kings. When Bartlett wrote King Charles III, it was possible to believe that our future monarch would suffer the crises of conscience of his Shakespearean forebears. In the case of The 47th it requires all the skill of the brilliant Bertie Carvel to persuade us that Trump is a dramatically compelling protagonist.
The more Bartlett’s Trump mimics the irony of Mark Antony or the demonism of Richard III, the more conscious you become of the gap between the politician and the prototype. Bartlett’s Trump is at his best when, still speaking blank verse, he attacks Kamala Harris for the Democrats’ failure to listen to people’s needs. “You speak to them like kids,” he tells her. “And not just kids but poorer, less good-looking / Trashy kids that you and your celebrities / All constant lecture from your raised pile.” That hits home. But, while Bartlett’s play is amusing and reads well, it struck me that the real Shakespearean parallel with Trump lies not among the kings and emperors but in the figure of Parolles in All’s Well That Ends Well: a hollow braggart who adopts a tone of leering curiosity towards women (“Are you meditating on virginity?” he asks Helena) and who lies his way out of trouble.
So how do you dramatise Trump? Four years ago, Tony Kushner announced he was writing a play about him: having classified Trump as borderline psychotic, Kushner went on to say that “he really is very boring”, and so far nothing has emerged. My own hunch is that you either have to tackle Trump on his own terms – as a man who treats politics as a form of performance art – or you have to analyse the source of his appeal rather than the man himself.
In the first category, I would place a Harold Pinter sketch, The Pres and an Officer, which was premiered as part of Jamie Lloyd’s season of short Pinter plays in 2018. In the sketch we saw an orange-complexioned, extravagantly coiffured Jon Culshaw, in a fit of pique, ordering the nuking of London under the mistaken impression it was the capital of France. The other method, of examining why people actually voted from Trump, was pursued by a number of writers in a show called Top Trumps staged by Theatre 503 in 2017. One particular piece by Christopher Adams was simply a verbatim interview with the writer’s mother on why she felt Trump would make her and the nation safer: Mark Lawson in his review said the piece should be taught on creative writing courses as an example of how to explore views with which the writer disagrees.
But if any one play explained Trump’s America it was Lynn Nottage’s Sweat, written in 2015 before his election and set in a Pennsylvania rustbelt town in 2000. Through diligent research and careful listening, Nottage explored what she called “the American de-industrial revolution” and the anger and despair that greeted increasing unemployment and a steel firm’s proposal that everyone take a 60% pay cut to save the plant. Trump was never mentioned, but Nottage’s play did more than all the spoofs and satires to explain his electoral success. Shakespeare himself, of course, had a phrase for this process: “By indirections find directions out.”
The 47th is at the Old Vic, London, until 28 May