‘The 47th’ Review: Bertie Carvel’s Transformation Into Shakespearean Trump Is Hypnotic

Mike Bartlett’s latest play is monstrous. In a good way.

Shapeshifting actor Bertie Carvel, having shot to fame creating the marvelously alarming Miss Trunchbull in “Matilda,” is back to world-beating bullying with his mesmerizing, convincing performance as Donald Trump in Bartlett’s play about the next US election, “The 47th,” now playing at the Old Vic in London. Following his runaway U.K. hit “King Charles III” (which netted a three-month Broadway transfer), this is Bartlett’s second future-history play about a succession crisis told in Shakespearean blank verse. But this time the fit of form and content is more awkward and, performances aside, considerably more uneven.

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Although Carvel sports padding and literally and metaphorically jaw-dropping prosthetic jowls, the power of his towering performance is entirely his own. It’s not just the tics and mannerisms he’s captured; he has also found Trump’s physical center of gravity to convey the weight, cracked authority and entire physical demeanor, one part preening to two parts petulance. Together with an eerie mimicking of the sound and fury of Trump’s limited-range, sing-song delivery, the effect is not merely convincing, it’s hypnotic.

Bartlett and director Rupert Goold set up laughs from the get-go by having designer Miriam Buether and lighting designer Neil Austin present a grand but bland Oval-office-like space, and then having Trump unexpectedly make his entrance on a golf cart.

From there, Bartlett uses Shakespearean iambic pentameter to point up the disparity between petty-minded behavior and grandiose dreams of a return to power. Although the model for Trump is a soliloquizing Richard III, all sorts of Shakespearean tragedies are ransacked for kingship kinship, not least a “King Lear” scene in which the father grills his three children: Donald Jr. (Oscar Lloyd), a benignly dim Eric (Freddie Meredith) and a suitably silent but supremely manipulative Ivanka (lethally purring Lydia Wilson), who wears a handbag like a hand-grenade.

Bartlett and Trump’s plotting leads to the dispatch not only of the assumed Republican candidate Ted Cruz but of Simon Williams’ nicely played Joe Biden (who gets to do a Lady Macbeth sleepwalking scene for not much reason). This paves the way for the rise of Tamara Tunie’s calm and assured Kamala Harris.

So far, so snappily satirical. But not only is the scattergun-Shakespeare approach less than satisfying, tonal problems swiftly surface because Bartlett is not content with the expected sharp jabs and jokes. He’s also attempting a serious, developed portrait of the dangers facing American democracy.

He initially attempts to embody the latter in sequences depicting a mob readying itself for a January 6-style attack, complete with a bare-chested horned figure. But Bartlett fails to give these rioters detailed dramatic function – they’re merely a malevolent image – so their scenes of fomenting revolt wind up looking like awkwardly over-choreographed sequences of sound and fury, signifying not nearly enough.

Bartlett’s wide canvas sets up more problems than it effectively solves. He writes subsidiary characters to work up into expedient sub-plots, but despite the actors’ best efforts, the characterization feels schematic. In the more focused second half, his analysis of the paralysis of the left drowning in good intentions, while the far-right banishes the rules — in discussions handled with winning ease by Tunie — add convincing depth. But these Aaron Sorkin-like scenes of power-broking sit uneasily alongside “Saturday Night Live”-style sketch comedy moments.

Bartlett is trying to have it both ways, but his twin styles are so at war with one another that they flatten both the intent and the content. Instead of building to a climax, the division between the two deflates the tension. Still, Bartlett’s audacity — plus the fact that Tunie, Wilson and especially Carvel never relinquish their grip on the audience — makes “The 47th” rarely less than entertaining.

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