There were some very weird vibes at the March 2020 press night for the big Lyric Hammersmith revival of playwright Mike Bartlett’s hit satire ‘Love, Love, Love’, insofar as it was was obvious that the theatres were about to be shut down, albeit nobody had a clue when and for how long.
‘We all knew something was coming,’ says Bartlett, ‘and there was a very theatrey feeling of ”let’s just hug each other and pretend it’s not going to happen”. And that night I thought that I’d love to write the sort of play this theatre was designed for and I thought: Well the theatres are about to close, and [after Cromwell closed them] didn’t the theatres reopen with Restoration comedy? I sort of wondered if, once the theatres did reopen, there would be a lot of the same feeling of cutting loose and wanting to have a good time having been stopped.’
One of the most prolific and successful playwrights in the country – and the writer of hit TV shows ‘Doctor Foster’ and ‘Life’ – Bartlett didn’t pen another word for the rest of 2020, poleaxed by the pandemic, pre-occupied with homeschooling and struggling to really understand the context in which he’d be writing future work.
As things eased in 2021, though, he got his mojo back and, long story short, Bartlett currently has an astonishing three major plays on in London. One’s a big West End revival of his critically acclaimed 2009 show ‘Cock’, which opened last month. And the other two are brand-new plays that recently opened within a week of each other. ‘The 47th’ is an audacious Shakespearean verse-indebted drama about the 2024 US elections starring Bertie Carvel as Donald Trump. And then there’s ‘Scandaltown’, the Restoration comedy-aping, uh, comedy about scheming London elites (with names like Miss Tweetwell) that Bartlett first had the idea for during that night on the eve of lockdown.
Shuttling backwards and forwards between two sets of rehearsals, having just been immersed in the ‘Cock’ ones, may sound nightmarish, but the very zen, very contemplative Bartlett is bang up for it: ‘To suddenly be doing it so much is only a good thing,’ he says. ‘People thing I’m really stressed but I’m just massively grateful to be doing it at all. I feel incredibly lucky.’
Both new plays are united by Bartlett’s uniquely magpie approach to form. As he sees it, he’s not really trying to write a Shakespeare play or a Sheridan comedy, but he’s ‘using their toolkit’ – ie nicking the best bits of largely defunct theatrical forms to inject some zing into his work, allowing him to approach subjects that interest him from interesting new angles. It’s an approach he applied to stunning effect with his 2014 smash ‘King Charles III’, a toweringly brilliant, funny, imaginative blank-verse drama about our future king, which ‘The 47th’ is being touted as a sort of spiritual sequel to, reuniting much of the same creative team.
‘Scandaltown’ is the fun one, the love letter to the reopened theatres and, not to put too fine a point on it, a celebration of London. ‘There’s no doubt that this country is divided more than ever,’ says Bartlett. ‘There’s not-London feeling justifiably overlooked in terms of money and attention and all sorts of things, but also Londoners going “yeah but London is different’’ – it is a different place. This play absolutely isn’t a naturalistic cut through of all London, more the privileged, powerful side of London, the side you get in the Evening Standard, society London. It’s an important part of London that most Londoners enjoy vicariously, and that’s a side of Restoration comedy.’
‘The 47th’ is bigger and darker and raised some eyebrows when it was announced, a mix of people questioning the timing of a play on Trump and questioning Brit Bartlett’s credentials to write it.
‘How dare I write this?’ he muses. ‘Well I’m a writer, it’s my job. And I’m more immersed in American culture than British royal culture!’ he reasons. ‘Donald Trump is a very Shakespearean figure, a sort of entertainer king who has a direct connection with his audience. I didn’t just want to make a play about him, that gives him too much oxygen. But from my point of view, something happened on January 6 when it genuinely seemed that American democracy itself was in peril. The storming of the Capitol is something you might expect to see in Shakespeare, so that was my starting point. You could see the play as asking the question: what is the left doing about the success of the current rightwing playbook, which is doing really well all around the world. Biden won, and that’s great, but it still feels pretty shaky.’
Reviews for ‘The 47th’ were relatively mixed, with many feeling uneasy about the presentation of Trump as a protagonist. But all were agreed that the role was an astonishing performance from the chameleonic Bertie Carvel, formerly Bartlett’s oleaginous leading man in ‘Doctor Foster’.
‘Bertie was always on my mind,’ he says, ‘because what Trump has to have on stage is danger. He has to be both seductive and dangerous and also to have an actor who can 100 percent get into the head of somebody who a lot of people think is unappealing, and Bertie is all those things. He’s completely the character when he’s performing: it’s intimidating even to us – he’s quite the thing.’
There was plenty of speculation in the press as to what the Royal Family thought of ‘King Charles III’; when Carvel starred as a Luciferian young Rupert Murdoch in the Almeida’s ‘Ink’, the Dirty Digger himself came to see the play multiple times. Does Bartlett anticipate coming to the attention of the MAGA crowd?
‘I don’t think any of them have noticed,’ he laughs. ‘But they’re all welcome to come. I’m sure we can find them a seat.’