The great thing about a James Graham play is that you go in with only the haziest ideas about the twentieth-century political moment he's picked as his subject, but come out two-and-a-bit hours later buzzing with its personalities and conflicts and stories. And 'Best of Enemies' typifies that feeling, alighting on the relatively niche subject of telly debates in the run-up to the US 1968 Presidential election, and making it completely lucid and vital.
The stars? William F Buckley Jr and Gore Vidal, two American political commentators and public intellectuals who loathe each other in an enormously entertaining way, and are mercilessly lined up by the ABC telly executives who've spotted their potential to boost its flagging ratings. They butt heads like elk, battling for control of the unknowable snowy wilderness that is the political conscience of the average American viewer. These two men typify the emerging face of American politics. Once, it was Republicans versus Democrats. Now, it's conservatives versus liberals, with Buckley campaigning for a New Right that mobilises the silent majority, while Vidal attempts to ride the wave of student protest and social liberalism.
It's pretty inevitable that a theatre audience would end up siding with the latter, and that's especially easy here: Graham digs into all of Vidal's contradictions, exploring his half-hidden, half-open gay identity, and the way his need to be taken seriously as an intellectual fights with his urge to enthrall the public with rhetorical flourishes, pre-prepared catty asides, or the salacious sexual freedoms of his novel ‘Myra Breckinridge’. Hollywood actor Zachary Quinto, best known for sci-fi roles, steps into the role for this West End transfer. Perhaps he's a bit of an unlikely piece of casting here but he's utterly compelling: feline and aloof to start with, but shedding his calm like stray cat hairs once Buckley starts to get the better of him.
David Harewood returns from the Young Vic run as Buckley, making an intriguing adversary: with his moneyed drawl, he struggles to be the man of the people he longs to be seen as, and Harewood captures the odd mannerisms of this awkward political performer, licking his lips with lizard-like nervousness.
Still, casting a Black actor in the role of a white conservative does muffle the impact of Buckley's debates with visionary Black American writer James Baldwin: famously, the two argued across America's deep racial divides in a landmark 1965 University of Cambridge debate, with Buckley advocating for segregation while Baldwin offered a powerful indictment of white America.
'Best of Enemies' explores this side of Buckley's story without really offering much insight into his racist mindset, or into the effect his interactions with Baldwin might have had on him. But that's perhaps because 'Best of Enemies' is trying to do so much, trying to make this distant era sing for a British audience. Broadly drawn mini-portraits of familiar late ’60s luminaries like Andy Warhol and Aretha Franklin pop up, and historical footage flashes across the stage's many screens.
Jeremy Herrin's final production as artistic director of Headlong is bright, clear and well-served by Bunny Christie's design, which beautifully echoes the rounded edges of the '60s telly screens which relayed all this drama to an audience at home. In a way, it's an unimaginably different time, one where TV broadcasts were a communal event, handed down to a public whose main way of responding to what they saw was by simply switching on or off (the kind of blunt measure today's Twitter-obsessed decision-makers must dream of). But Graham makes it feel recent by showing that this is the time when personality and politics became inextricably intertwined, and hinting towards the limits of charisma and ego when it comes to actually governing a country.