Is US political satire ‘The 47th’ too much too soon?
Plus, a rundown of the books, films, music and more by Tortoise Media, the slow news agency
Friday 6 May 2022 By James Wilson
Welcome to the latest Creative Sensemaker from Tortoise Media.
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, 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 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. As with King Charles III, one of Bartlett’s previous plays, 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, D.C: ‘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. The Trump on stage in The 47th 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.’
If only this was confined to the stage. Trump has often praised autocrats during his political career. 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.
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 – that Trumpism will be represented 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.
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.
Elektra by Jennifer Saint
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. Elektra retells the story from the perspective of its women: 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.
Alpha Games by 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. If you can, try to catch them on their UK tour later this month.
That’s all for this week. Take care of yourselves.