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FringeReview UK 2022

The 47th

An Old Vic, Sonia Friedman and Annapurna Theatre Company Production

Genre: Contemporary, Dark Comedy, Mainstream Theatre, New Writing, Poetry-Based Theatre, Political, Theatre

Venue: Old Vic, The Cut Waterloo


Low Down

Directed by Rupert Goold, Designer Miriam Buether, Costume Evie Gurney, Lighting Neil Austin, Sound Tony Gayle, Original Music and Sound Score Adam Cork, Video Ash J Woodward, Movement Lynne Page, Wigs Hair and Make-up Richard Mawbrey, Casting Rebecca Ronane CDG, US Casting Jim Carnathan CSA.

Till May 28th


Since Trump and U.S, politics yawps out for an epic stage, it’s no wonder Mike Bartlett’s returned to the Old Vic. The 47th – his first play there in seventeen years, since starting out in 24 Hour Plays – delivers epic.

In blank verse, like King Charles III. This though can’t be as intimate. How to make it relatable beyond monstering laughter? Bertie Carvel’s one answer, perfect inhabiting his role.

Blond-bewigged, he struts his two-and-a-half hours, relishing the energy he nurtured but held in check as Rupert Murdoch in Ink. Carvel relishes the chance to confide to the world his Trump’s proxy discovery of Machiavelli: ‘too long’ he adds to knowing laughter. His aides digest it to a memo.

There’s a lot of laughter. ‘I know, I know. You hate me… and hey, your hate is real, and beautiful.’ Unlike his half-fictive forebear this half-fiction relishes his audience’s judgement. Was ever an audience so woo’d?

Beyond Richard III another answer is Shakespearean jokes. So yes Richard III is delivered Buckingham-esque on his loyal child, but the outcome’s slippery. So it is when early on Trump Lears his three offspring and Ivanka says ‘nothing’ – but twists it. And there’s Carvel’s Mark Antony on Cruz (James Garnon in one of three sleaze roles) when he’s meant to be endorsing him for President: ‘Ted Cruz is an honourable man.’ It’s not confined to Trump either. Simon Williams’ excellent havering Biden, wanting out, sleepwalks. Harris and Richard Hansell’s attentive, doctoring Richetti have to choose too and Biden forces their hands.

This isn’t just blank verse. Bartlett slyly recalls Artuo Ui, who following Hitler employs a broken-down Shakespearean actor to hone his demagoguery. Brecht’s certainly in the mix and Bartlett’s nearer his temperature.

It’s one device Bartlett calls on to underpin a potentially chilling, alienating play where none of the characters can be drawn deeply, just a few dilemmas. He has a solution.

A Bartlett play tends to two dynamics: the box or the fatal leap. With heedless Trump at its core The 47th doesn’t possess some of the savage boxing-into concentric squares of Bull or for instance that other office nightmare, the no-way-out Contractions; let alone King Charles III.

Other plays like Earthquakes in London and more subtly the recent Albion, show the trip-wires people create for themselves, rather than the system, or in the case of Earthquakes, ways to jump out. Cock’s the fatal leap kind too, and here it’s not confined to Trump who doesn’t feel dilemma, but for Tamara Tuni’s Kamala Harris (that scene with Biden, and later), and Lydia Wilson’s Ivanka Trump, it’s explicit; and for a pair of siblings on opposite sides, it’s key.

James Cooney’s Charlie Takahashi as honourable NYT reporter rubs up against another incarnation of James Garnon, white supremacist cheerleader Paul. His sister Ami Tredrea’s Rosie – a Republican – has given him an in. How close will he dare? And when things sour, what will she choose?  Being epic, there’s not the depth to explore this core dilemma, and we jump-cut to unexpected reappearances and outcomes. There’s tender, testy moments between Tredrea and Cooney, which Bartlett has little time to explore, partly because it would point up themes his plot wants unpointed.

There’s excellent performances. Wilson’s Machiavel daughter gets to inhabit a serpentine Ivanka Trump with lines dismissing Trump’s ‘rank and armed gangs… Mine is a smarter route to power/We’ll soar much higher than Trump Towers.’ The often classical Wilson relishes the classic contemporary.

Tunie’s Harris too agonises with elegance: there’s moments and choices as she takes reins and feels her reign might be brief. Challenged at each turn by Trump’s actions – ‘good people’ invading the Presidential debate, inciting mob violence and death all over the States, she havers over arrest; pulls back from what advisors advise. ’I fear that all the rules and principles/I’ve learned are for times of peace…’

Cherrelle Skeet’s luminous as Tina Flournoy, straight-talking advisor to Harris, and as Nurse Vita in the final scene with a long speech, gives one of the most affecting in the play.

There’s strong performances too from Oscar Lloyd’s Donald Jr, more anxious and appealing here than in life, and Freddie Meredith’s stressed Eric Trump, happy to creep into a quiet life. Garnon, denied much of his Clinton (in the truncated Jimmy Carter funeral scene), makes for an oleaginous Cruz and menacing, wheedling Paul. As Cruz’s wife Jenni Maitland is all outrage, as Moderator all thwarted reason and as CIA all smokeless mirrors to realpolitik. Joss Carter’s Shaman has a role out of proportion to his silence and headgear. Ben Onwukwe, denied much Obama, lays it down as General Taylor whilst the video depicts fires state by state.

It’s worth recording the excellent ensemble: Charles Craddock, Flora Dawson, Miya James, Eva Fontaine, David Tarkenter (also G W Bush), David Carr.

Directed by Rupert Goold, this is still a pacey production, rampant in spectacle, cutting a surprising amount of text at the late rehearsal/printing stage (including speeches from Clinton, Obama et al). Designer Miriam Buether brings her trademark neon rectangle to surround Ash J Woodward’s video design in a panoramic backing upstage, occasionally giving on to the Oval Office beyond. But it’s a swept stage otherwise, unfussy and witty – the opening shows a phallic red golf flag poking up through the stage and Trump entering on a buggy. And there’s surprises for the audience. Use is made of theatre boxes, flags, ticker-tape. This production comes at you; like Trump is unbound.  It recalls the spectacle of Poison three years ago.

Evie Gurney’s costumes touch the surreal a few times: in the Shaman’s dress and Trump in a deeper orange than he’s used to in prison. Neil Austin’s lighting delights in sudden dark and some spectral moments; Tony Gayle’s sound naturally springs ambushes. Music by the distinguished Adam Cork is memorably punchy and moody, appropriately showbiz. Lynne Page’s movement swirls with Whitehouse smooth and turns spiky with mobs that overleap their confines. Wigs hair and make-up by Richard Mawbrey are a dark triumph, not only with Trump.

Bartlett’s command of the five-act structure is sovereign, but with Trump would always tend to the shaggy; unlike King Charles III those reflective moments threaten to sag. As speculative as that play too it also fields questions that don’t date. Democracy’s on the line whoever wins in 2024 or 2028; demagoguery doesn’t alas fade easily. Trump’s legacy fuels insurrection; his obscene DNA mates minds. That’s not going to change soon.

Though The 47th is chillier, never quite as engaging as a taut royal play, Bartlett’s as persuasive here as anyone could ever be. The terrain’s slippery and more vast, the roll-call dizzying. Carvel presides but that mustn’t dim the two great supporting roles of  Tunie and Wilson, with Skeete, Garnon, Williams and excellent smaller roles. And there’s more jokes. A must-see.