We went to review James Graham’s political drama Best of Enemies last year when it debuted at the Young Vic; we described it as an ‘enthralling political drama’ and we’d gladly still describe it as such with this West End transfer. Directed by Jeremy Herrin at the Noel Coward Theatre, it’s set during the US election in 1968 which would eventually see Richard Nixon become president – although the focus here is on periphery characters and the power of the media.
Best of Enemies tells the stories of leftwing writer Gore Vidal (Zachary Quinto) and conservative commentator William F Buckley Jr (David Harewood) as they are recruited by broadcaster ABC – at the time desperate for ratings – to debate on TV live from the Republican and Democratic Party conventions that summer. We are afforded a few snapshots of the conferences themselves and a handful of pop culture figures from the time (Andy Warhol, Aretha Franklin) make some cameo appearances, but the focus is largely on these televised slanging matches between our two political pundits.
At its heart this is a case study of the rise of the celebrity commentator and the power that television and famous faces have to shape public perception and discourse; it implies that these landmark televised moments paved the foundations for the deeply divided and celebrity dominated politics we’ve seen in recent years. There are countless parallels to be drawn between the discourse then and now – not least that we’re still frequently subjected to exceptionally wealthy men insisting they know what’s best for working-class people.
It’s a fascinating show to watch. Much of the dialogue is verbatim and Zachary Quinto is a perfect fit in the role of Gore Vidal; his is a delightfully witty and perfectly paced performance. David Harewood is charismatic and engaging opposite him – when the two debate it makes for completely captivating viewing.
We adored Best of Enemies – it tells an absolutely fascinating story and presents a compelling case study for how we’ve ended up where we are today in terms of the political climate. The lives of Gore Vidal and William F Buckley Jr are unlikely to be terribly well known amongst a younger generation in the UK and it’s exciting to see their respective tales unfold. Their debates range from sexuality to race to class and it’s intriguing to see just how much has – or hasn’t – changed. Above all, though, this is a great story, brilliantly told – what more could you want from a theatre show?
GAY TIMES gives Best of Enemies – 5/5
More information can be found here.