Old Vic, London
What wouldn’t we give to have Shakespeare’s voice on the seismic power struggles currently playing out on the national and international stage? His absence is key to Mike Bartlett’s bold, witty new drama, The 47th, which playfully echoes many of the playwright’s great works as it measures up to this perilous episode for democracy. Though led by a jaw-droppingly good performance from Bertie Carvel as Donald Trump, it’s not a forensic political play about the next US election, but a funny, feverish, frightening drama about the grave threat posed by strongman populism and the challenge it sets to the fundamental tenets of democracy.
The “47” of the title refers to US presidents and the thorny question of who will next assume that office. Number 45 has views, as he makes plain to us — Richard III-style — when he rolls on to the stage in a golf buggy in Rupert Goold’s zippy production and proceeds to swing at a golf ball while relishing his reputation.
“I know, I know, you hate me,” declares Carvel’s Trump with glee as he laments his “exile” and plots his return to power. Soon he is toying with his children’s loyalty (King Lear), insulting Kamala Harris (more Richard III), and publicly humiliating Ted Cruz in the guise of support (Julius Caesar).
It’s fun to spot the allusions (a trick of oratory here; a sleepwalking scene there) and to relish the flourish with which Bartlett deploys blank verse alongside flashing cameras, sharp suits and tins of cookies. Like several of Shakespeare’s characters, some figures here reflect on the overlaps between stage and world stage, with Tamara Tunie’s excellent, dignified Kamala Harris considering the role of the “understudy”.
But there is a more serious weight to Bartlett’s homage. Shakespeare scoped the beginnings of democracy in his Roman plays and was fascinated by leadership: its lure, its limitations, its cost. He also wrote devastatingly about the dangers of a cleverly manipulated mob and the perils of trying to tackle ruthless ambition with reason. The threat of a descent into violent disorder snakes through many of his plays.
Here such concerns meet the sort of real-life scenes we’ve seen recently: a TV debate derailed; a violent, fanatical uprising; pinched-faced officials assessing how to handle an out-of-control populist. And there’s a warning in the shape of Bartlett’s depiction of Ivanka Trump as a more sophisticated operator than her father (an icily inscrutable Lydia Wilson).
The play is held back by several thinly drawn characters, a rather skimpy subplot involving a brother and sister, and some underwhelming crowd scenes. It doesn’t have the intricate depth of King Charles III, Bartlett’s earlier “future history” play. But it’s gripping, funny, restless and ambitious, diving into the terrifying problem of leaders prepared to tear up democracy for their own ends (the play’s title has a twist). And Carvel is brilliant — uncanny with his nest of wiry blond hair, his jabbing hands, supercilious smile, singsong vocal delivery and needling neediness.
To May 28, oldvictheatre.com
‘Daddy’ A Melodrama
Almeida Theatre, London
Writers of colour scrutinising the role of the audience have given us some of the most original and exciting new dramas of the past few years: Jackie Sibblies Drury’s Fairview, for example, or Suzan-Lori Parks’s White Noise.
The American writer Jeremy O Harris joins that assembly. He was nominated for 12 Tony Awards for Slave Play; now with “Daddy” A Melodrama he tackles ownership, power structures in the art world and what it means to be a young black artist celebrated in a white-dominated space. The audience, watching the play, becomes part of the story — a fact emphasised in Danya Taymor’s production by the onstage pool that frequently douses the front few rows of the stalls.
That pool belongs to wealthy white art collector Andre, whose Bel Air home in Matt Saunders’ design resembles a David Hockney pool painting. It’s here we meet Franklin, a talented young black visual artist, whom Andre has taken up and whom he seems to regard as part lover, part possession. “Be mine,” Andre urges, as he runs his hands over the younger man’s body, nicknaming him “my little Naomi” and instructing him to call him “Daddy”.
The queasy symbolism of their relationship ripples out as Franklin finds himself lionised as the latest hot thing. The tensions between his new life and his old — his absent father, his God-fearing mother and his church-dominated past — begin to assume literal form as a gospel choir shows up and takes up residence along with the two scantily clad LA wannabes (John McCrea and Ioanna Kimbook, both very funny) who hang out with him.
Harris revels in clashes and incongruities, smashing together arch satire, high melodrama and poignant reflection to conjure a surreal scenario that reflects Franklin’s whirling state of mind. It’s fun, unpredictable and tartly observant about the history, legacy and locus of power, Harris using the stage space to create his own aesthetic. It becomes overloaded by the end, but Taymor’s production meets his eclectic style with a mischievous production and terrific, magnetic performances from Terique Jarrett as Franklin, Claes Bang as Andre and Sharlene Whyte as Franklin’s mother — a woman who can turn polishing a fork into a loaded statement.
To April 30, almeida.co.uk
For Black Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When The Hue Gets Too Heavy
Royal Court, London
In 1976 Ntozake Shange wrote a seminal work, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When The Rainbow Is Enuf. Ryan Calais Cameron now responds with For Black Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When The Hue Gets Too Heavy: a meditation on black masculinity. And what a joyous, sad, beautiful piece it is — muscular, vibrant, deeply tender. Taking the rough shape of a therapy group, the show presents us with six young black men on a near empty stage, who take turns to step forward and talk about their experiences.
That might sound dry, but the warmth with which the issues are handled makes them hit home afresh: early encounters with racism; countless microaggressions; major traumas; the stereotypes of black masculinity; the creeping shadow of suicide. Cameron writes with zinging wit and vernacular ease: the show (directed by the author with Tristan Fynn-Aiduenu) seems to unpack on the stage naturally, Rory Beaton’s eloquent lighting shaping the mood.
What really makes it, though, is the interaction between the six superb actors (Mark Akintimehin, Emmanuel Akwafo, Nnabiko Ejimofor, Darragh Hand, Aruna Jalloh and Kaine Lawrence). Precise in their individual movement and definition, they are also in tune as a group. Whenever one speaks, the others shape around him, listening, echoing, reacting. They are often funny — squabbling, flirting with the audience, jostling for position — but there’s a vulnerability to it all that is deeply touching.
Sometimes music and song take over and they spin and fly about the stage. The choreography (Theophilus O Bailey) dazzles, but more eloquent still is the subtler body language: the way they all quietly tilt one way on their chairs in response to a monologue; the silent looks they exchange as someone dares to ask out a girl or open up about a father. There’s a lot of pain in this show, but the overwhelming impression is of love.
To April 30, royalcourttheatre.com