Like scurvy politicians

“The world laughs at us”, Donald Trump said in 2011, a full five years before he took the White House. “They won’t be laughing if I’m president.” The problem of laughter is central to The 47th, Mike Bartlett’s whirlwind of a play set in the runup to the next US election. The nervous titters erupting from the audience in the first scene define the anxious paradox: how do liberals respond when a man they thought of as a mere malevolent clown turns out to have a finger on his nation’s pulse, and the world’s jugular? Are we about to watch a version of Alec Baldwin’s Saturday Night Live Trump, as if a parody of his weird gestures and facial expressions could be anything like enough?

Bertie Carvel’s Trump enters on a golf cart, circling the round stage whose floor looks like the Capitol rotunda. His back to the audience, he awkwardly frees his trousers from his buttock crack, swings at the ball, and misses. Carvel has Trump’s peculiar body language to a T – the sideways open palm, the two raised index fingers, the twitches of the head – and his speech pattern too, with its falsetto petulance and menacing pauses. But the minute he turns to us and speaks his first soliloquy, we know we’re in for something much more threatening. This Trump is a manipulator, a master of veiled threats, adept at using fake charm to disarm. What’s more, he’s got our number: “I know, I know. You hate me. So much, right? … And yet, you just can’t get enough of me.” He cosies up to our doubts, names our hypocrisies: “You white men in the audience … forget a judge / The proof of guilt’s the pallor of your skin. / And we all know there’s something wrong with that / But you don’t want to say it.” And he tells us we need him: “Sure. Well, that’s okay / Cos here I am: Your devil.”

Bartlett’s 2014 King Charles III staged the power struggles that might follow the Queen’s death as a Shakespearean drama. The 47th is another future history play, written in fluid and impeccable blank verse, spiked with Shakespearean references. Lydia Wilson’s perfectly poised Ivanka, a frosty Barbie doll in skyscraper-high heels, is Cordelia’s evil twin. Trump endorses Ted Cruz (James Garnon) as “an honorable man” while burying his career. Joe Biden (the suitably loose-limbed Simon Williams) sleepwalks like Lady Macbeth. These echoes aren’t just candy for the cognoscenti; Each brings in the shadow of a different drama that lingers to enrich and complicate the story.

So, in 2024, the ageing Trump summons his three eldest children to Mar-a-Lago for a quick-fire family round of The Apprentice to decide who will inherit “my cash, my contacts, and what’s more: my love”. Of course, he has no intention of relinquishing his power: “Make silence fall, your flapping mouth tie down / With patience. It’s your thoughts that seize the crown.” Deftly, perhaps too easily, he disposes of rivals and Republican doubters with blandishments and threats, setting the stage for the play’s central conflict. In the red corner, Donald Trump, representing amoral greed and the lust for power; in the blue corner, Kamala Harris, standing for order and democracy. The confrontation between them feels ancient, archetypal. Before the drama’s done, through tight plot twists and turns, Harris has had to face the limitations of her principles. Upright as Antigone, reluctant to compromise, she lets chaos loose on America.

The devil, they say, has all the best lines, and one of the challenges facing Bartlett and the director Rupert Goold must have been how to give this mesmerizing Trump a compelling enough adversary. Tamara Tunie as Harris contests Carvel’s pyrotechnics with a dignified stillness, projecting fearlessness but also vulnerability. She can sass back at Trump, coolly drinking the juice he’s ordered her to bring as if she were the maid, but she also speaks to us about self-doubt. Like Ivanka, she plays the daughter’s part, persuading honest Joe to run again; unlike Ivanka, she reflects on her own ambition: “I hoped to run as female, black, with pride, and with my head aloft … But maybe ego’s not my natural state. / A best supporting actor, not the lead”.

Tunie herself has an excellent supporting actor, Cherelle Skeete, as the aid who anticipates her midnight need for cookies, bolsters her confidence and gives her tough political advice. Bartlett pays close attention to all his female characters, who make up a scattered chorus against toxic masculine hubris: the feisty Heidi Cruz (Jenni Maitland), whom the real Trump attacked on Twitter and who here gets the satisfaction of slapping his face; Ivanka’s youthful driver, Rosie Takahashi (Ami Tredrea), whose reporter brother (James Cooney) goes undercover with Trump’s mob and suffers the consequences; Nurse Vita, also played by Skeete, who steals the play’s last scene with a heart-tugging monologue about her mother’s death from Covid in a public hospital: “My mother was a wonderful woman. She loved cards. She’d sit and play her cards and as she played her cards she’d talk about sex … It was, I have to say, an education. Then she got a cough, a temperature, she couldn’t breathe, they took her away, and she died.”

That little moment has to stand for the ocean of human pain caused by Trump’s presidency. The 47th explores politics as personality, not policy; but then, that’s the tenor of our populist moment, too. When Trump and Kamala Harris at last come face to face, he tries to explain it to her: “You still don’t get why they despise you all… Well, let me help you out: It’s that you say you listen but you don’t. ‘t. / You order them around … You speak to them like kids. / And not just kids but poorer less good looking / Trashy kids, that you and your celebrities / All constant lecture, from your raised pile.”

He has a point, of course, brought home in the real world when Hillary Clinton described his real-life supporters as “a basket of deplorables”. My only reservation about this brilliant production is that it slips a little too easily into that patronizing view. Rosie does her best to persuade her brother otherwise: “These are good people, Charlie … They never judge me. They’re hard-working people who feel like they’re always being laughed at, and lied to, and are you sure they’re not?” But what we see on stage is a violent, deluded mob sprung as if fully formed from Trump’s malevolent mind. There’s no sense here of the history that’s shaped both their resentments and his ravenous greed.

But then, we’ve seen that mob on television too. At the end of the play’s first half, when Trump’s supporters disrupt a presidential debate and the horned QAnon shaman sprawls triumphant, center stage, it feels like a real invasion, a terrifying premonition of the future. A play is not a prophecy, but politics and theater have always gone hand in hand, each bending an ear to the other. The 47th ends before the election takes place; two women are left on stage, conspiratorially bound by a terrible secret. Did I imagine it, or did one of them whisper, “Think Marine Le Pen”?

Maria Margaronis is a writer and radio documentary maker

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