LONDON – To run or not to run - that is the question troubling Donald Trump at the start of Mike Bartlett’s play “The 47th,” an audaciously Shakespearean take on recent and future U.S. politics.
The title of the play, running at London’s Old Vic Theatre, refers to the next president of the United States. The plot depicts a high-stakes 2024 election in which former Trump (the 45th), President Joe Biden (the 46th), Vice President Kamala Harris, and Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, are all key players.
The play opens with Trump in Mar-a-Lago retirement, hankering to return to his role as disrupter-in-chief, and asks whether he could succeed — and at what cost. It’s not so much docu-fiction as a fantasia on power, democracy and populism.
The theater piece is written in deliberately Bard-like blank verse and alludes to Shakespearean plots. One moment Trump is like King Lear, deciding which of his children deserves to succeed him; the next he is Richard III, scheming to seize the crown.
It’s a technique British playwright Bartlett previously used to powerful effect in “King Charles III,” his 2014 play that imagined a tumultuous future reign for the current heir to Britain's throne, Prince Charles.
“I loved the daring and the audacity of the play,” said actor Bertie Carvel, who gives a compelling, and likely award-winning, performance as Trump. “It’s really funny and really fun, but it’s definitely not a comedy.”
It’s also “not a hatchet job” on Trump, said Carvel, who played another powerful figure, media mogul Rupert Murdoch, in James Graham’s 2017 play “Ink.” In that play, he pulled off the feat of getting audiences to root for the billionaire magnate as a plucky underdog.
He faces an even stiffer challenge playing Trump, someone few people are neutral about. “I know, you hate me,” Carvel's Trump half-taunts, half-teases the audience in the opening scene.
Carvel says he’s an “advocate” for all the characters he's played, which include the monstrous Miss Trunchbull in “Matilda the Musical” in London and New York, a cheating husband in TV thriller “Doctor Foster” and undead dinner guest Banquo in Joel Coen’s movie “The Tragedy of Macbeth.”
“You can mount a very worthy defense as an advocate without necessarily believing that the person is innocent,” said Carvel, who is set to play British Prime Minister Tony Blair in the fifth season of “The Crown.”
“My job is to give things a ring of truth and to create a credible, legible human being.”
He said Bartlett’s script “credits Trump and Trumpism with a serious hinterland. And also, I tried to make sure he has a serious emotional hinterland as well.”
In real life, the 44-year-old British actor looks nothing like Trump. Onstage, the likeness is astonishing. His first entrance, rolling onstage in a golf cart, draws gasps from the audience.
"What we wanted to achieve was to be able to put in front of an audience a version where they might go, ‘Oh! It’s him!’” said Carvel, who credits costume designer Evie Gurney for achieving the transformation with padding, prosthetics and a wig.
Lydia Wilson undergoes an equally compelling transformation into Ivanka Trump, with her perfect hair, sleek dresses and stiletto heels. In the play, Ivanka is her father’s favored child, right-hand woman — and potential rival.
Wilson, who plated Kate Middleton in “King Charles III,” said slipping into costume as Ivanka was transformative.
“The first dress rehearsal, I felt like I’d gotten into a Bentley or a Rolls-Royce,” Wilson said. “I was like, ‘Oh, there she is.’ It’s really fun to play with who or what is inside that silhouette.”
Wilson, whose credits include “Star Trek Beyond” and Kenneth Branagh’s Shakespeare film “All is True,” said she feels like she is having a “silent conversation” with the audience each night about the Trumps.
“There is an assumption that we know these people,” she said. “It is fun to try and riff and play with that.
"It's different every night."
London critics have praised the cast, which also includes Tamara Tunie as a resilient Harris, but differed on the play’s impact. The Daily Telegraph found a “lack of meaningful substance” beneath the surface polish, while The Guardian felt we are “still too close to the Trumpian moment” for true insight.
But The Times gave “The 47th” five stars, praising it for “jabbing the liberal, metropolitan Old Vic crowd” by showing Trump’s genius as well as his flaws.
“King Charles III” went from London’s small Almeida Theatre to Broadway. Could “The 47th” follow after its Old Vic run ends on May 28? Carvel, who secured a Tony Award nomination for “Matilda,” and won a Tony for “Ink,” thinks that would be “thrilling.”
“I think it would be electric to do it even closer to the center of the vortex," he said.