30 March 2022
THE 47TH (Old Vic Theatre) Review

Mike Bartlett is 10 days away from having 3 of his plays being staged in London simultaneously:  “Cock” at Ambassadors Theatre has been running for almost a month, “Scandaltown” at Lyric Hammersmith is due to start on the 8th, and “The 47th” at The Old Vic started just yesterday.  Popular guy!  Having seen quite a few of his plays over the years, his writing has been a bit of a hit-and-miss for me, and I’m not sure where to place this one.

The set-up is deceptively simple:  with Donald Trump as the 45th president of the United States and Joe Biden as the 46th, who is going to be the 47th, and how exactly will it happen?  All the political figured you’d expect to see and then some are present and accounted for:  Trump, Ivanka, Biden, Harris, Cruz, Clinton, Obama, Bush Jr., the lot.  Several ensemble members play different characters, so it is a bit confusing at the start.

At a glance, this play feels like a tribute to Shakespeare: it definitely leans heavily on King Lear (a father asking his three children to describe who loves him the most and a blind man with some wisdom to impart, etc.) and Macbeth (a powerful man being pressured to dislodge the reigning ruler, night-time haunted dreams, etc.).  Yet there are definitely a few places where it feels less like an ode and more like a lazy “borrowing”, as in we have an interesting plot from Shakespeare, so let’s just stick these characters into it.  The text is also spoken largely (though not exclusively) in that iambic pentameter that we’ve come to associate with Shakespeare. It has an interesting effect in the play:  with Shakespeare, your focus needs to be on what’s being said so you can understand it; here the easy-to-parse text is sometimes overcome by the melodic language so much, you have to work very hard not to let the words pass you by.

With the running time just shy of 2.5 hours (excluding interval), it didn’t feel long as such, but it was more convoluted in several places than it needed to be.  I hope a lot of it gets streamlined throughout the previews.  More importantly, it tries but doesn’t quite succeed (in my book anyway) as a piece of biting political satire.  It’s entertaining for sure, but doesn’t really bring to the surface anything we don’t already know about human nature.

The play lives and dies with Bertie Carvel being able to parrot Trump, both in voice and mannerisms, and he does a phenomenal job.  More importantly, it doesn’t feel like Carvel is mocking Trump or playing up to the audience; instead, it feels like he genuinely inhabits the character.  Carvel wears some serious prosthetics, so much so, that I’m not sure I’d be able to tell him apart from Trump in a line-up.  It’s actually ironic because he is so unmistakably “trumpish”, whereas other cast members have to be even more on-point in representing real recognisable people on account of looking like themselves, but not always succeeding.  If Carvel doesn’t win something for this production, I’ll be surprised and disappointed.

Tamara Tunie’s Harris is believable, but several scenes feel strained.  She put in a solid performance, and I thought she was very good overall, but she was also a bit samey in a lot of scenes, which made her appear a bit stiff.  Lydia Wilson as Ivanka is just not my cup of tea.  She is just too cute (I don’t mean looks-wise, though Wilson is very pretty, but the whole attitude-wise).  Even when Wilson tries to be ruthless, you just want to go, “awww, you’re so cute when you try to be mean”.  Simon Williams was indisposed for this performance, so David Tarkenter, whose main role is meant to be Bush Jr., played Biden instead.  He was alright, but a bit bland, especially in the scene where he implores Tunie to take an action she doesn’t want to.

I liked Rupert Goold’s direction on balance (though I did wonder why Almeida’s artistic director is staging a play at The Old Vic and freeing up Almeida’s stage for “Daddy”).  The two things that really put me off were the real-time video projection and the running in circles to depict pursuit.  The latter has been done by everybody who is anybody:  from Yaël Farber in “Blood Wedding” at Young Vic to Robert Icke in “The Wild Duck” at Almeida and everyone in-between.  Surely there must be other ways to depict a chase…  As for the video, it is essentially rallies being filmed with smart phones and projected on the back wall.  From my perspective, it didn’t actually add anything, and every other play seems to be doing it these days, whether it needs to or not.  Goold loses major creativity points with me here for relying on the old tried-and-true and not doing anything particularly inventive.  (Though, speaking of inventive, I really liked Miriam Buether’s multi-functional set.   The way it is used as a table, among other things, is brilliant.)

The more I think about it, the more I am reminded of watching “A Very Expensive Poison” in this very auditorium a few years back.  It too had a very similar vibe by way of scripted chaos.

Cheapskate enjoyment value: £5.

Bonus: There are a few places throughout the play where members of the company stand in the aisles and/or sit in random seats and scream at the people on stage during rallies and such.  I think a couple of patrons at the back of the stalls (where the dress circle overhangs it) may’ve gotten confused as to what was going on and tried to join in with the screaming! 🙂

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