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‘Best of Enemies’ review

  • Theatre, Drama
  • 5 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
Best of Enemies, Young Vic, 2021
Photo by Wasi DanijuDavid Harewood and Charles Edwards
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Time Out says

5 out of 5 stars

David Harewood and Charles Edwards are phenomenal in James Graham’s love letter to America’s chaotic late ’60s

James Graham is a political playwright so on top of his game that you kind of take it on faith that any play he comes up with will be a banger, regardless of how esoteric the subject.

Thus it once again proves with ‘Best of Enemies’, a drama about the bitter rivalry between US political commentators Gore Vidal and William F Buckley Jr during the 1968 US party conference season, in which they served as pundits for the struggling ABC News.

Though Vidal in particular is famous to this day, there is naturally the temptation to respond to the premise with a hearty shrug. But Graham is the man who made his reputation with ‘This House’, a drama about the machinations of the Labour whips’ office during the hung parliament of the 1970s. Of course he aces it.

The first section of ‘Best of Enemies’ consists of extremely smart exposition: we’re introduced to the fact it’s the ‘60s via cheeky quips from decade leading lights James Baldwin and Aretha Franklin, then plunged into a quickfire account of ABC’s struggles to compete for viewers against their bigger, better-resourced rivals NBC and CBS. But despite funny scenes – notably one in which a savant-like Andy Warhol annoys everybody at a house party – we’re never allowed to forget this isn’t the cuddly British ’60s: it’s the screaming American ’60s, a deeply divided country locked in an unpopular foreign war, with powderkeg domestic politics, still reeling from the assassination of JFK, the wounds of segregation still gaping wide open.

It’s skillfully set up, but it’s when the debates start that the play goes from ‘good’ to ’electrifying’. The two lead actors are phenomenal. Harewood, in his first stage outing in a decade, presents Buckley as a relatively decent, certainly sincere conservative who goes from dismissing the debates as a sideshow to getting dangerously high on the celebrity status they afford him – he goes from starchy ideologue to self-styled figurehead of the resurgent right. He’s a complicated figure, his innate decency balanced by a libertarian meanness and an un-self-critical belief in his own righteousness. 

Harewood plays him brilliantly, at first a stiff, impassive man whose emotions are only betrayed by a twitchy half-smile and the frank conversations he has with his beloved wife Patricia (Clare Foster); but later he thaws into a cocky, confident media performer who is only undone when national events overtake him, and his underlying fury at Vidal gets the better of him. 

Harewood is, of course, Black, where Buckley was white – he’s obviously mostly cast in the role because this is 2021 and he’s really terrific, but I think the casting helps the production insofar as it somewhat deflects from the fact Graham absolutely loves to write plays about middle-aged white guys.

Vidal is a theatrical figure, dancing waspish rings around his stolid rival

Edwards’s Vidal is practically Buckey’s opposite: a slick, snarky media performer who initially catches Buckley off-guard with his love of the fight, wilfully provocative approach and slick, pre-cooked one-liners. In many ways, he’s a troll. But after largely ‘winning’ the debates around the earlier Republican conference, he’s knocked for six by a resurgent Buckley at the infamously chaotic Democratic conference in Chicago (ie the one from ‘The Trial of the Chicago Seven’). His opponent is energised and ideologically committed to Republican nominee Richard Nixon, while Vidal struggles to mount a passionate defence for the chaos of the Democratic convention. Edwards is puckishly entertaining as Gore, but there is an aching hollowness at play in his performance – intellectual, erudite and passionate, he simply can’t bring himself to invest in the Democratic Party in the same uncomplicated way that Buckley can in the Republicans, and so he snarks, a sideshow, not a leader. He’s a theatrical figure, effete, erudite and queer, dancing waspish rings around his stolid rival - but rarely able to match his passion.

Their clashes thrill throughout, even though we (kind of) know from the beginning how they end – the show opens in the aftermath of Buckley disastrously losing his rag with Gore, though we don’t find out the circumstances until much later in. 

Jeremy Herrin’s production for Headlong and Graham’s script bring all this to vivid life: rather than a straitlaced ‘Frost/Nixon’ style set up, ‘Best of Enemies’ explodes with colour and characters, a cyclone of ideas with the Vidal/Buckley clash its eye. Bunny Christie‘s vivid, flexible TV studio set is a thrill, Tom Gibbon’s occasionally cartoonish sound design a kinetic hoot, Syrus Lowe at the very least walks off with best supporting actor for his magnificent turn as the frail, poised, devastatingly perceptive James Baldwin, and John Hodgkinson is horribly magnetic as Chicago’s foul-mouthed, mob boss-like Mayor Daley. 

Much has been made already of the fact that ‘Best of Enemies’ – which is based on a 2015 documentary about the debates - serves to foreshadow the rise of the current, terminally combative state of US network news. But I think that’s a slightly wonkish point that applied more to the doc. If anything, the play serves to underscore how the sense of apocalyptic division in the American psyche that we’re experiencing now clearly echoes America’s ‘60s – a decade that the British tend to remember very differently. 

Despite a (presumably verbatim) quip from Gore about the danger of ‘the most disastrous man in the country’ rising to power if they gave good TV, the parallels with now aren’t actually laid on thick. They’re just simply there. For all his faults, Buckley is far more impressive than Tucker Carlson or whoever his loathsome modern descendent would be. And that’s part of the point here: as written by Graham, Harewood’s Buckley and Edwards’ Vidal aren’t just ciphers for right and left, but living, breathing, extremely flawed human beings who sincerely believe in their duelling visions of America, and helped forge the nation’s (duel, divided) sense of who it was in 1968, and for many years after. 

Yes, there are points where ‘Best of Enemies’ basically strays into fanfic. But it’s really astoundingly good, funny, tragic, human fanfic, a perfect marriage of writer, subject, director and cast. There’s probably an argument that every one of Graham’s plays is basically just a meticulously researched love letter to whatever his current political obsession is: ‘Best of Enemies’ is a rush of starry-eyed wonder at the awesome chaos of late ‘60s America, and the towering intellects who stalked it.

Andrzej Lukowski
Written by
Andrzej Lukowski

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Price:
£10-£45. Runs 2hr 15min
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