Donald Trump as Shakespearean anti-hero? In Mike Bartlett’s new play – one of three by the author currently playing in London – the hate-mongering dayglo atrocity is part Richard III, part King Lear.
“You can’t get enough of me. You all adore my entertainment,” he gloats – and, thanks to a virtuoso performance from Bertie Carvel in Rupert Goold’s slick production, he’s right.
Carvel’s turn is uncanny, from the corpulent bulk and tiny flapping hands to the pouty, rubbery beige lips, the avaricious, lizard-like gaze and ludicrous swirl of nicotine-yellow hair.
Yet in this dystopian vision of the near future – it imagines Trump trying to get back into power in the next presidential race – where’s the meat? The plot is a grotesque soap opera, all greasy poles and dirty deals; as America descends into anarchy, a bug-eyed, rebel-yelling craziness takes hold in scenes that, like the 2021 Capitol riot, feature a cavorting, horned shaman, and wouldn’t look out of place in The Purge.
Granted, politics has become such a horrow show that even the most lurid drama would struggle to compete. Bartlett, though, is largely content to stick to lightweight send-up. It’s cartoonish fun, but it doesn’t offer much more to chew on than a Spitting Image sketch.
With King Charles III – his 2014 speculation on the fate of the British monarchy written, like The 47th, in blank verse – Bartlett adroitly channelled Shakespeare’s history plays. In a US setting, the iambic pentameter feels more contrived, though the dialogue nails the absurdity of Trumpian soundbite and sloganeering.
The Donald – whom we first encounter on the golf course, yanking his underwear out of his butt crack, attempting a simple putt, and missing – is scheming his return to the White House. Republican rival Ted Cruz (an oily James Garnon) is put out of the running when Trump discredits him at his own rally, with a treacherous piece of oratory pinched from Julius Caesar.
Joe Biden (Simon Williams), battle-worn and bleary, wanders the corridors of power at night like a deranged Lady Macbeth. Only Kamala Harris (Tamara Tunie), elevated by Biden’s resignation to 47th President, stands in Trump’s way.
Meanwhile, Donald divides his favours between his children, conferring greatest status on Lydia Wilson’s glacial Ivanka while incestuously ogling her body. There’s also a half-assed subplot involving his loyal chauffeur and her Democrat brother, an undercover journalist.
Designer Miriam Buether showers everything in flags, fireworks, and red, white and blue ticker tape, and Goold keeps the pace smart. But the supporting characters are undernourished. Tunie’s Harris endowed with little personality beyond a hard-pressed dignity; and the prevailing flatness and flimsiness obstruct our involvement.
It’s Carvel’s magnificent monster who steals the show – a malign joke, just as on the world stage, and all too true to life.
To 28 May oldvictheatre.com