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Trump treads the boards

Trump treads the boards

The 47th, Mike Bartlett’s new play about the 2024 US election, raises important questions about the future of American democracy

Donald Trump isn’t running for president again.

Or rather, he isn’t at the start of Mike Bartlett’s new play, The 47th (the Old Vic, running until 28 May). An imagined version of how the 2024 US election might play out, the production begins with the former president doing what he’s been doing a lot of since he left office – and to be fair, what he spent a lot of time doing while in office: namely, playing golf in Florida. But, as so often with The Donald, there are a few surprises in store, and before long he’s entered the fray as a candidate.

With the primaries approaching, an aged Joe Biden (Simon Williams) decides to hand over the reins to Vice President Kamala Harris (Tamara Tunie) before the race gets underway, and soon it’s down to her to prevent Trump from winning back the White House.

Bertie Carvel as Donald Trump in The 47th

One of three plays by Bartlett currently showing in London (the others being Cock and Scandaltown), The 47th isn’t the playwright’s first foray into futuristic storytelling. In 2014 King Charles III opened in London, charting the imagined political repercussions in a world where the Queen’s eldest has ascended to the throne. While such a situation may well come about before the 2024 election, the events depicted in The 47th seem all the more urgent, conjuring an all too real scenario in which democracy itself is on the ballot.

Tim Pigott-Smith as Charles in King Charles III

Bertie Carvel excels as Trump, bringing to life the former president’s viscous, vindictive nature and his now almost iconic mannerisms. But the Trump we see in The 47th is also surprisingly self-aware in parts. “I know, I know. You hate me,” says Trump as he breaks the fourth wall to address his left-leaning London audience at the start of the play. “And even though you’re all so liberal, you judge me by the colour of my skin! Not cool. Not cool.”

Trump’s intro – reminiscent of the beginning of Richard III (“I am determined to prove a villain”) – is the first of many references to Shakespeare’s work throughout the production. Just like in King Lear, Trump gathers his three children near the start of the play to ask which one deserves to be his heir. At one point, in the dead of night, an aged Joe Biden wanders around the White House in a way that’s eerily reminiscent of the ghost of Hamlet’s late father.

Simon Williams as Joe Biden

As with King Charles III, The 47th is written entirely in Shakespearean blank verse – an unrhyming, metered style of prose in iambic pentameter – as Bartlett said it allowed him to “link the intimate and personal with the national and epic.” It was something he only decided that the play needed after the 6 January insurrection in Washington, DC: “I realised what was happening had an epic scale,” says Bartlett, “that combined the deep personal issues of Trump and his family with the huge historical and social underpinnings of American democracy.”

Bartlett leaves no doubt in The 47th that the events of 6 January were a calculated attempt by the former president to retain his grip on power. And rather than being a one-off, he implies that the insurrection was just the beginning. Trump’s political strategy in The 47th is one that has violence baked into its very core. This Trump has nothing to lose and is ready to win at any cost. Rallying the mob is just the start of his assault on democracy. As the fictional Harris reminds Trump: “Your idols are dictators. Many times you’ve craved the power that they cruelly wield.”

Joss Carter as the Shaman

If only this was confined to the stage. Trump has often praised autocrats during his political career. In the last year of his presidency he told the journalist Bob Woodward about his relationships with foreign leaders, bragging that “the tougher and meaner they are, the better I get along with them,” singling out Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s strongman PM, in particular. In 2018 he praised his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping for having his two-term limit abolished, potentially allowing him to reign for life. “Maybe we’ll have to give that a shot someday,” Trump mused. 

Back in Bartlett’s fictional America, Trump suggests he’d roll back the 21st amendment, which prevents him from serving more than two terms: “What’s done can be undone”. The question The 47th raises is whether Trump would use a second term to fully embrace such politics and do away with democracy. 

Indeed, just this week we’ve seen the ease with which a whole swathe of the American population can have their most basic rights curtailed by the highest court in the land – one which Trump made sure to cram full of right-wingers while in office.

Tamara Tunie as Kamala Harris

Though its natural focus is the Republican party’s descent into authoritarianism, The 47th doesn’t spare the liberals either. The play depicts the Democrats as the smug, out-of-touch architects of their own downfall. “You cannot understand why they all vote for me, can you?” Trump tells Harris. “It’s that you say you listen but you don’t. You order them around… You speak to them like kids.”

But Trump’s blatant embrace of authoritarianism and disregard for the rules often causes him to clash with his daughter – and pick for vice president – Ivanka (​​Lydia Wilson) as they coordinate his campaign. Indeed, the favourite Trump child often counsels her father against indulging his worst instincts, urging him to play it safe. But her more cautious approach is not to be mistaken for moderate politics. Indeed, the Ivanka depicted in The 47th perhaps serves as a more sinister warning for 2024.

Lydia Wilson as Ivanka Trump

The idea of America returning Trump Sr to the White House is a frightening one. But perhaps the real danger is that Trumpism will be represented in 2024 by a smarter, more competent, but no less dangerous candidate with a wider appeal. As Harris’ chief of staff tells her when the president attempts to downplay the danger of authoritarianism that Trump represents, “Every time the devil strikes he wears a different face.” Whether the face Trumpism wears in 2024 is a new one, or comes in the familiar orange hue, we cannot afford to underplay the danger it poses.

Here are this week’s recommendations.

Watch

Navalny – BBC iPlayer

As this newsletter was being prepared, fears were circulating that Alexei Navalny could soon be sent to Melekhovo, a notoriously violent prison in Russia. As the closest thing there is to an opposition leader in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, he’s used to facing down threatening situations – including the attempt on his life in 2020. All the more remarkable, then, are the bravery and humour with which he addresses his situation in this documentary. When Navalny is first told, while in hospital, that his near-death experience was a result of Novichok poisoning – Putin’s signature weapon when it comes to killing dissidents – he almost seems frustrated by how lazy the Russian president has been: “If you want to kill someone, just shoot him,” he says. “Jesus Christ!”

While the film captures the charisma and authenticity that have made Navalny so popular across Russia, that’s only part of what makes him such a threat to Putin. He is also an adept investigative journalist, and by teaming up with Christo Grozev of Bellingcat, begins to put the pieces of the plot to poison him together. “Let’s make a thriller out of this movie,” he jokes to his director at the start. The reality of his situation, and the absurd and oppressive nature of Putin’s Russia, means the team behind this remarkable film were able to indulge him.

Mr Jones, Special Film Screening for Ukrainian Relief

Not a new film, but one that’s essential viewing in light of current events in Ukraine. The true story of the Welsh journalist Gareth Jones’ (James Norton) landmark reporting trip to the USSR in 1933, Mr Jones charts how the young hack uncovered the Holodomor famine cruelly inflicted on Ukraine by Stalin. This special screening, intended to raise funds for Ukrainian relief, is on next Tuesday, 10 May at London Southbank University’s Keyworth Centre and will include a panel discussion and Q&A afterwards. Do book your place at what promises to be an enjoyable evening for a good cause.


Read

Sea of Tranquility – Emily St John Mandel (Pan Macmillan)

Written in the time-hopping style made famous by David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, Sea of Tranquility begins in 1912 with Edwin, a young Etonian exiled to Canada for a radical anti-imperial outburst at a dinner party, before flicking forward to 2020, then to 2203, then 2401. Mandel not only manages to breathe life into several worlds both imagined and historic, but strings them together in a way that’s imaginative and unforced.

There’s also a playful reference in the novel to the author herself, who in 2014 published Station 11, which returned to popularity when Covid began. In Sea of Tranquility, Olive is on a tour promoting her latest book – like Mandel’s, about a pandemic – when a real-life one hits. But while each of the novel’s characters are affected in some way by cataclysmic, era-defining events, there’s always beauty lurking somewhere. A fun and life-affirming novel that masterfully strings together elements that could at first seem disparate.

The Age of the Strongman – Gideon Rachman (Vintage)

While 2016 – the year of Brexit and the election of Trump – is often marked as the moment when national populism really took off, the reality is that this particular form of politics has been around since the start of the 21st Century – and indeed, has come to define it. In this timely book, Gideon Rachman, the FT’s chief foreign affairs columnist, charts the rise and reign of various leaders who fit the definition of “strongmen”. Whether based in autocracies or democracies, all see institutions and the rule of law as obstacles to them achieving their objectives on behalf of “the people”, and all have established a “cult of personality” around them to prop up their rule. Essential reading in an age when democracy seems to be dangerously out of fashion.

Elektra – Jennifer Saint (Headline)

While the tale of Troy is a story plenty of us grew up knowing, it was always through the eyes of the men who senselessly killed each other. In Elektra, Jennifer Saint retells the story from the perspective of the women at its centre: Cassandra, the princess of Troy who already knows how the war will catastrophically end, and what it means for her city; Agamemnon’s wife Clytemnestra, and their daughter Elektra, who both have conflicting feelings toward Agamemnon for the sacrifice of his daughter Iphigenia. The Greek myths are a tapestry of moving and tragic stories with a focus on family conflict, and Saint exploits perhaps the greatest one of all, for all it’s worth.


Listen

Alpha Games – Bloc Party

After a six-year hiatus and three solo studio albums from frontman Kele Okereke, Bloc Party are back with a record that returns to their roots. More guitar-centric, it’s heavier than Hymns, their previous album, while retaining the fun melodies that caused so many to fall in love with the band when they first started out. Particular highlights include ‘Callum is a snake’, ‘In situ’, ‘If we get caught’ and the fantastic opener ‘Day drinker’. If you can, try to catch the band on their UK tour later this month.

We – Arcade Fire (6 May)

The Canadian indie rockers return tomorrow with their first studio album since 2017’s Everything Now. It’s also their first since Will Butler – original member, multi-instrumentalist and brother of lead singer Win – announced he was leaving the group to spend more time with his young family. Despite Will’s departure and the lengthy hiatus, the love fans have for the band (especially in the UK) was reiterated when they performed their first British gig in four years on 29 April to mark the reopening of iconic Camden venue KOKO. If the three tracks released so far are anything to go by, the new record will be vintage Arcade Fire – full of fun, quirky singalong anthems that sprawl over several tracks. 

That’s all for this week. Don’t forget to send in your own recommendations to editor@tortoisemedia.com.

Take care of yourselves.

Best,

James

Photographs courtesy Marc Brenner/The Old Vic, Robbie Jack/Corbis via Getty Images, BBC, Signature Entertainment