Comedy has played a defining role in framing the Trump administration. When most politicians shrug off jokes made about them, or even play along, Trump is infuriated. On numerous occasions he has taken to Twitter to express his “disappointment” in Alex Baldwin and his “ridiculous” impressions on Saturday Night Live. He decided to forgo the White House Correspondents’ dinner and comedian Michelle Wolf’s roasting of his presidency. He almost entirely avoided London in July when a giant nappy-wearing Trump baby balloon was flown above protestors. More recently, he was simply bewildered when his speech to the other leaders at the 2018 United Nations general assembly was responded to by laughter.
Such responses have shown Donald Trump’s utter oblivion to his own human frailty. It’s this narcissism that became the focal point for Laurence Peacock, co-artistic director of Blowfish Theatre and alumnus of Sheffield University, when he began writing Trump: The Musical.
The musical comedy is returning to Sheffield on Sunday after selling out shows across the country. Set in the year 2020, the story follows Donald Trump as he runs for re-election (“Make Donald Great Again!”). Meanwhile, King Nigel Farage the First of England is attempting to get a post-Brexit trade deal, Kim Jong Un is fixated with missiles and Vladimir Putin has gone suspiciously quiet. The performance – described by Peacock as a “geopolitical farce” – aims to realise all your political nightmares in song.
This is the second show produced by Blowfish Theatre following their 2016 Boris: The Musical. On the decision to make a comedy about Trump next, Peacock said: “When Trump got elected last year we just felt that he was the obvious choice – we’ve got sort of a niche for blond demagogues. There is something really nice about making a show that is topical and that you can keep refreshing. It produces a good energy in the room when you nail it. It can be quite special, so we couldn’t pass up the opportunity.”
Unlike with Boris: The Musical, they decided to set this show in the future, to avoid issues arising from the fast changing political landscape: “We got caught out last time with the 2017 Snap General Election and we had to do a whole new section. With Trump we keep updating the references and add new bits as we go – and it’s always an interesting discussion to decide what to include.”
They’ve found the best rule for adding new material is to see whether the reference gets a hashtag. For example, they decided to add a reference to Stormy Daniel’s description of Trump’s penis to the “mushroom character in ‘Mario Kart’” after #MarioKart trended worldwide.
Nonetheless, they sensibly decided to book Sunday’s show before the Midterm Elections, though, even with that, Peacock suggested that since the process would be quite slow, if “Trump did get impeached we could just throw in a reference as to how he got away with it!”
Still, satirising Trump doesn’t come without its difficulties. When he was elected President, many pronounced satire dead. The Twitter hashtag #NotTheOnion, a reference to the satirical news website, grew more common with every outlandish tweet and unpredictable decision.
Peacock admitted that, compared with Boris, Trump was a harder figure to satirise: “With Boris you kind of get an idea with what’s going on, you know he’s ambitious, there’s a depth there and from a satirical perspective you can use that. With Trump it’s not at all clear what’s going on underneath the bonnet.”
Trump’s immunity to satire could be a sign that politics is changing. Writing in the Independent, William Cook has argued that “mockery no longer matters – brand recognition is all that counts.” That, on the run up to the 2017 US Elections, mocking Trump kept him in the news – a so called “Trump Bump” – and gave him a stature his opponents lacked. In relation to this idea, Peacock doesn’t see this as applicable to the show (“The United States doesn’t need any help from us!”), but that it is still a prevailing issue for some university student audiences. It was only last month that Nick Clegg’s talk at the university was cancelled due to “security concerns”.
So what can you do with Trump if he has rendered himself satire-proof? For Peacock, the show’s focus is on the audience: “We know that another satirical comedy about Donald Trump is not going to be the straw that breaks the camel’s back – or that he will be brought down by the ferocity of our moral fury – that’s obviously not going to happen. But what we can do is put on a good show: give everyone a good time and something to laugh about.”
Channelling the Ancient Greek playwright Aristophanes, who mocked his contemporary demagogues, Peacock says they’re: “Going back to satire not just as barbs or cheap shots, but as a real moral charge.”
His summary of the performance: “essentially a series of satirical metaphors that attempts to show how Trump can be undone by his narcissism.”
At times, he admits he feels compelled to push further, like when Trump “either ignores, defends or just gives an environment to fascists – which is what we saw last weekend [referring to the Pittsburgh synagogue mass shooting] and you sit down and think ‘I feel like we’re not hitting hard enough.’”
Nonetheless, Peacock emphasises that this is a show that “doesn’t take itself too seriously” – do not go expecting a high-brow intellectual comedy. Instead, they aim to please rather than shock the audience – “think more South Park than the Thick of It” – whilst offering a level of catharsis from the too often baffling current political happenings.
Whilst Trump may call the production “fake news” if he came to see it (that is, if he could sit still for over 90 minutes), in bleak times we need comedy. Trump: The Musical reminds us of the need to reach for punchlines when we want to throw punches.
Trump: The Musical is showing Sunday 4 November in Foundry. See the SU website for more details.
Image credit: Heather Isobel