LONDON — Donald J. Trump sits grumpily at the wheel of a golf cart as he drives onto the stage of the Old Vic theater in London. Swerving to a halt, he hauls himself out of the tiny cab, pulls a club from a golf bag, scratches his backside, swings for a three-foot putt, and misses.
Smiling wryly, he then turns to face hundreds of spectators in the auditorium. “I know, you hate me — so much, right?” he says. “And even though you’re all so liberal, you judge me by the color of my skin,” he adds — perhaps referring to a bright orange tan. “Not cool. Not cool.”
The audience laughs; Trump sneers.
For the past few weeks, theatergoers have been heading to the Old Vic to see the British actor Bertie Carvel embody Trump in “The 47th,” a play by Mike Bartlett that imagines what might happen if Trump runs in the 2024 election. Wearing heavy padding, Carvel spits out withering insults at Kamala Harris (played by Tamara Tunie) and derides Ivanka Trump (Lydia Wilson). But, at a recent performance, not everyone in the audience found the play funny.
Ranney Mize, 79, a retired neuroscientist visiting from New Orleans, said afterward that he had not laughed as much as the theatergoers around him in the orchestra level. He and his wife “were deeply concerned about the future of American democracy and the threat Trump poses to that institution,” he said. Carvel’s portrayal of Trump was more evil than funny, Mize said.
Jenna Williams, 47, who works in venture capital in New York, said that she had also reacted differently than most audience members. When Trump made a leering reference to Ivanka’s figure, Williams said, she let out a cry of disgust in an otherwise silent auditorium.
Any play can divide audiences on theatrical grounds, but “The 47th” appears also to be splitting viewers along national lines. Rupert Goold, the play’s director, said that when he spoke to audience members during intermissions, Americans found the play more serious and politically urgent than others.
“My sense is they want to see this story, or what Trump represents, re-foregrounded as we run up to the next election,” he said.
British theater critics have certainly highlighted the play’s humor over its politics. Quentin Letts, in a five star review for The Times of London, called it a “funny, outrageous production.” The creative team were “plainly having a lot of fun,” he added. “So much modern theater is po-faced, palsied by political correctness. Not this,” he wrote. Arifa Akbar, in The Guardian, said the play was “best in its granular moments of comedy.”
Bartlett, a British playwright, is perhaps best known for “King Charles III,” another darkly humorous vision of the future which opened on Broadway in 2015 and imagines Prince Charles’s taking over the British throne after Queen Elizabeth’s death. In “The 47th,” the prognostications include Trump’s goading his supporters into nationwide riots that Harris, his opponent, struggles to stop. (“Enjoy the flames of freedom,” Trump says during a televised debate.)
As in “King Charles III,” the characters in “The 47th” speak in blank verse and iambic pentameter, as in Shakespeare. Goold said that this literary device was essential to the play’s success: Its depiction of Trump did not come across as a simple parody, like Alec Baldwin’s appearances as Trump on “Saturday Night Live.” If you want to put Trump onstage, Goold added, “you can’t stare directly into the sun.”
Bartlett said that he had long been drawn to Trump as “a great Shakespearean archetype” but that he had only started to write the play after Jan. 6, 2021, when Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol. It felt then like the United States was at risk of collapse, Bartlett said. “I thought, ‘OK, I have a bigger story here about American democracy,” he added, “about the legacy of the Civil War, and why people want to vote for Trump, and have different views of what America is.’”
Both Bartlett and Goold said that “The 47th” wasn’t the first time they had experienced different reactions to a play from British and American theatergoers. In 2009, Goold had a runaway London hit with “Enron,” Lucy Prebble’s play about the fall of the U.S. energy giant. When it transferred to Broadway, “Enron” closed just days after the premiere. “New York audiences were not hungry for the humanizing of what Enron was, and what it represented,” Goold said, contrasting their reaction with that of British theatergoers, who were more detached from the scandal.
“King Charles III” was also received differently in London and New York, Goold said. In Britain, the play — which prophetically featured a love-struck Prince Harry considering leaving the royal family — had theatergoers questioning their views of the monarchy’s future, Goold said. But in the United States, audiences “saw it as an ongoing saga, like Downton Abbey,” he noted.
“The 47th” is the second headline-grabbing production about Trump to debut at a major London theater, after Anne Washburn’s “Shipwreck,” which appeared at the Almeida in 2019 in a production also directed by Goold. By phone from the United States, Washburn said that did not suggest London stages had a greater appetite for tackling American politics than Broadway, but simply reflected that theaters in the British capital “tend to be more nimble” and so can react more quickly to current affairs.
She had read “The 47th,” she said, and found it “super ingenious” in its mix of modern politics with the Shakespearean form. The play “feels like a gift,” she added. “It’s very seldom that, as an American, you have your own culture reflected back on you.”
After the recent performance, it was unclear whether the American tourists in the audience felt the same. Jeffrey Freed, a Florida resident and partner in a private equity firm, said that he had expected a British writer to portray Trump as a buffoon; instead, he said, Carvel’s portrayal “was darker than I expected,” showing Trump as sinister and cunning. “It accurately captured his endless thirst for power and utter disregard for American democracy,” Freed added.
Mize, the retired neuroscientist, said that he’d spent a lot of the play wondering how it would go down on Broadway. “I guess New Yorkers would be anti-Trump, so there would be a lot more visceral response to him,” he said, “and then if any Trumpers were in the audience they would be very unhappy.”
“I could see fights breaking out,” Mize added, but then paused briefly. “Well, maybe not,” he said.