Bertie Carvel’s Perfect Trump Impression Can’t Save This Superficial Piece



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Rory Bremner makes a bad impression on Donald Trump, but he has nothing on Bertie Carvel. The chameleonic 44-year-old British actor, who stole the show as Miss Trunchball in the original production of Matilda, embodies the man who served as America’s 45th president in Mike Bartlett’s satirical new play with such winning rigor that you could be the real McCoy. ulcers had landed in SE1.

You could watch Carvel play ball like Trump for hours. That’s a good thing, because the great ogre of recent US politics is in the spotlight for much of the near-future action, set at the end of Biden’s first term in office, in 2024.

The mere sight of the main attraction elicits recognition and knowing chuckles. Carvel’s Donald comes into view in a golf buggy, cheek profile and fuzzy, badly coiffed yellowish hair, steps out at a hole of the golf course and takes a putt at a ball, his behind to the audience – indulging in a mindless scratching too. It’s a tragicomic sight; largo desolato in Mar-a-Lago.

When he turns to speak, or squeaks grandly, with erratic emphasis and sardonic underlining, it’s clear the star is confusing him: that finicky and snappy way with the fingers and moving hands, the bent jerkiness, the restless , tilting head, narrow squinting. In Bartlett’s twist, Trump can be impeached, but he is unbowed, and immediately incendiary: “The white men in the audience, you know what it feels like to be told… You’re racist! debt! Forget a judge/ The proof of guilt is the paleness of your skin…”

There’s an unintended irony in that opening salvo; it was allegedly remarks about identity politics that propelled Terry Gilliam’s production of Into the Woods – originally intended for this slot – to be driven by internal discord. Bartlett has once again created a blank Cod Shakespeare verse to create a simulated epic discourse, such as with his flower-adorned “future history play” King Charles III in the Almeida (then West End). The purpose of the exercise here is, of course, to show how distasteful Trump’s thinking is. Spurred on to run for the White House again, America’s great disruptor is rebooting in a more fascist form – stirring up its supporters, stirring unrest and unveiling a new slogan: America Rules!

The script pays lip service, but only that, to the idea that Trump is providing a repository for the hopes of America’s dispossessed. There is no proper interaction with the populus; they are raised in a TV debate, and Bartlett, again with Almeida artistic director Rupert Goold, paints them in the primary colors of unruly mobbishness: a shamanic man – much like the accidental figurehead of the US Capitol attack in 2021 – turbulent, physical vignettes dominate.

The drama opens with a demand for expressions of childish devotion straight from King Lear – Melania is not present, or mentioned – though the Cordelia-esque Ivanka (a studiedly composed, stiletto-sharp Lydia Wilson) impresses her father by refusing to play ball. There are so many subsequent Shakespeare references that the play is almost like an extended sophomore skit. The florid style fits loosely with Trumpian rhetoric, but where intertextuality led us into the concerns of the monarchy in King Charles III, less light is shed on the state of the American political body. So Simon Williams’ Biden goes doolly and becomes a sleepwalker, like Lady Macbeth; and then? The monologues often sound like graceful padding.

With the plot taking a turn for the ridiculous, the title that came to my mind the most was Much Ado About Nothing. Bartlett alludes to the impact of the pandemic, but in general his conjecture doesn’t care much about contextual details. Flashes of humor aside, it feels like an outsider’s perspective, and also one-sided. Kamala Harris of Tamara Tunie has a gravitas that feels undeserved. The women inevitably resist unabashed misogyny. Goold brings his usual glow to the proceedings, played under an oval strip of light, but can’t hide the lack of meaningful content beneath the theatrical shine. Maybe think of it as Carvel’s tour de force, but as Trump would attest, you can’t win them all.


Until May 28. Tickets: 0344 871 7628; oldvictheatre.com

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