Bertie Carvel plays Donald Trump in The 47th. Image: Marc Brenner
Bertie Carvel has serious range. How else to explain how he has been cast as Rupert Murdoch (in Ink, for which he won Olivier and Tony awards), Miss Trunchbull in Matilda the Musical (another Olivier), Tony Blair in the next two series of Netflix’s The Crown, and now Donald Trump?
In The 47th, a new play by Mike Bartlett at the Old Vic in London, Carvel takes on Trump, set to the rhythms of Shakespearian verse. In the near future, at the next US election, Trump bids to regain the Presidency and Kamala Harris stands in his way. Comedy or foreshadowing tragedy time will tell. But the play’s the thing to catch the conscience of the Donald.
The Big Issue: How hard was it to not play a caricature of Donald Trump?
Bertie Carvel: It is a challenge, but that is the job. And I’m also liberated from having to be the real thing because it’s not that. It’s a simulacrum. The point is to ask people to look freshly at this stuff. So I’m able to bring everything I think about this person, everything that Mike Bartlett thinks, together with everything we discover in a room with an audience – and it’s really exciting.
Were you looking for what lies beneath Trump’s (orange) mask?
What’s interesting about him is that he seems like a caricature or a cartoon, but he’s very much a real person. So there’s quite a lot to be mined in there. What is that construction? How much of it is armour? How much of it is presentation? And what does it feel like to be in that? As somebody who spends his life wearing masks of one kind or another, I relate quite easily to that. My job is to work out what it feels like to be the person I’m playing.
So how did you find your version of Donald Trump?
There’s an element of psychoanalysis, there’s an element of just making the shapes they make and seeing what feeling that produces in your body, and an element of pure imagination. We all know his work. We’ve all been studying it for a number of years. So research came easily. It is hard not to sound like a wanker saying this, but the stuff I think about the character comes out in the performance, hopefully. The beautiful thing about iambic pentameter, blank verse, the Shakespearean form, is that when it’s written well – as by Shakespeare… and Bartlett! – it’s a kind of roadmap.
A heightened, more theatrical Donald Trump is kind of terrifying…
I don’t really believe in naturalism. I believe theatre is inherently abstract. The audience knows they’re coming into a room to pretend they’re somewhere else with a bunch of people who aren’t who they say they are. So you can do naturalism all you want, but ultimately, we have to suspend our disbelief. It’s a collective act of imagination.
This is a near-future, ‘what if’ kind of play – is there a fear it becomes irrelevant as reality moves away from this path?
You’ve got this new kind of politician of whom Trump is an exemplar. We are using this play to process the trauma of where we are. And more broadly than just in American politics – in our present political moment when the post-war consensus has broken down. Theatre at its most exciting is a mechanism for processing the world around you. And it’s entertaining. Art can ask questions without necessarily supplying the answers. And that’s what processing is. There’s something therapeutic about that.
How are you feeling about performing in front of live audiences?
I’ve done a lot of work through the pandemic but I’ve not had that direct contact you get in the theatre. Particularly playing a part like this, where the joy is in the relationship with the audience. I’m really excited to do that in an iconic theatre like the Old Vic [in London], which is just built for that connection. I am keeping my fingers crossed as I say this, but I think it’s going to be a huge success. I feel confident saying that to you. It’s an extraordinary piece of work. We always think about plays being of their moment and for their moment – and this is in spades.
And you are playing Tony Blair next, in The Crown…
I’ve done a little bit already for season five. And then I’ll be doing a lot more in season six, which doesn’t start shooting until the summer.
It’s 25 years next month since he became Prime Minister – is this an interesting time to reassess or revisit him?
That’s definitely true. Tony Blair is another titan of our age. He’s been one of the most influential living politicians. His legacy is huge, in all kinds of ways. I don’t know yet what arc Peter [Morgan, writer] is going to give him in the story. So I’m slightly walking into this as an act of faith. Again, it’s my job as an artist to look at the thing I’m trying to represent and have a view about it. But it’s also my job as an actor to be non as non-judgmental as possible. It is kind of a contradiction in terms – but it’s not my place to hang a character out to dry. It’s not about doing a hatchet job.