This Gore Vidal play premiered on Broadway in 1960 and was never staged in the UK. But in an era of wildly unpredictable elections, populist politicians and unprecedented mud-slinging, ‘The Best Man’ has found its moment.
At a party convention in Philadelphia, two very different wannabe presidents battle it out: the intellectual, well-off and well-educated William Russell versus the chest-thumping self-made man Joe Cantwell, who’ll say anything to appear a man of the people, and do anything to win.
In the first ten minutes, lines about unreliable polls, popularity contests, mistrust of intellectuals and a misleading press land like they’d been written last week. But ‘The Best Man’ is still a period piece in many ways, and rightly treated as such by director Simon Evans. Kudos, by the way, to him and the women on stage for giving the fluffy but potentially faintly tragic female roles some bite: chilly and pointed as an icicle, Maureen Lipman ironises her ‘woman’s touch’ waffle as an indomitable party member, while Glynis Barber finds some zinging resistance as William Russell’s sexually spurned yet loyal wife.
Martin Shaw strikes an appropriate balance of gravity and levity as William, managing to pull off moral righteousness without appearing too pompous. He finds a worthwhile opponent in Jeff Fahey as Joe Cantwell, all puffed chest and slicked hair, confidence shading into brashness.
Vidal achieved a pleasing balance in structure, swapping between the two camps as they vie for the endorsement of the existing president. Joe threatens to smear William by revealing he had a nervous breakdown; William has a dossier of dirt on Joe, but is reluctant to sink to that level. ‘The Best Man’ implies a degree of conviction, and culpability, on both sides, although it’s pretty darn clear who you should root for. While there’s some suggestion the Bertrand Russell-quoting William is a dithering over-thinker rather than a presidential man of action, Vidal ultimately suggests that intelligence will prevail over dumb self-belief. Possibly not such a neat parallel, then…
The script features bursts of smart-talking, snappy dialogue, but there are also quite long stretches of dry political chat. Taking place statically in a cream and gold hotel room, ‘The Best Man’ is theatrically pretty inert; I could imagine it working better on screen (it was made into a move in 1964). It’s timely, yes, and a solid production, but never feels that urgent.