Last Updated on 1st December 2022
Tim Hochstrasser reviews James Graham’s play Best Of Enemies now playing at the Noel Coward Theatre, London.
Best of Enemies
Noel Coward Theatre
29 November 2022
This play brings to the stage the debates between Conservative ideologue William F. Buckley Jr and Liberal gadfly Gore Vidal that took place on ABC during the Republican and Democratic Presidential Conventions of 1968. While the tapes of these fascinating encounters have long been available, the principals are now long gone, and the challenge is to introduce this material and its dramatic context to a new generation. Playwright James Graham and director Jeremy Herrin build their play out of a documentary that aired in 2015. The play was a success at the Young Vic last year and now comes to the West End with some minor changes.
The result is consistently engrossing and entertaining, with some fine performances, expertly integrated sets, and a text that sticks to the verbatim record when the camera is running in the studio and elsewhere opens out the background to situate this encounter within the crowded, chaotic events of 1968.
This was no ordinary American presidential cycle, including as it did, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, unrest over civil rights and Vietnam and the vigorous assertion of the counterculture. The Democratic Convention itself in Chicago was overtaken by the violence of Mayor Daley’s ‘police riot.’ The face-off between Vidal and Buckley needs to be understood against this contested background, though Graham perhaps tries too hard in this regard, introducing a plethora of contemporary characters (including Tariq Ali and Enoch Powell from Britain) that risks simply overcomplicating the narrative.
The dramatic interest is at its strongest in the original dialogues which fizz with wit, snark, and verbal one-upmanship that needs no further intervention or enhancement. These were two public intellectuals at the top of their game, who appreciated this was a unique opportunity to share their rival visions of America with a public eager for interpretation of perplexing and complex times. However, Graham also does an excellent job in opening up the media backstory, pointing out how the decision to employ two erudite and combative talking heads was essentially a strategy to boost ratings at ABC (nicknamed the ‘Almost Broadcasting Company’) and take the fight to CBS and NBC.
In this, they were hugely successful, but arguably this proved a Faustian bargain given the consequences down the years for political comity, seriousness of debate and public civility. As Vidal and Buckley both predict in the final debate, in a rare point of agreement, the ultimate destination of the dominance of television is the promotion of comedian candidates who crowd out the serious voices altogether.
Two carefully considered and detailed performances underpin the two leads. As Buckley, David Harewood does not aim to imitate his uniquely arch transatlantic drawl but captures his prickly patrician persona and the seriousness of purpose that made him the most serious conservative ideologue of the Reagan years. As Vidal, Zachary Quinto is truly excellent: the waspish ‘bons mots’, laid-back suavity and blend of liberal idealism and ruthless inner coldness are perfectly captured in a way that rises way above mere impersonation. This portrayal also shows a gathering awareness of the costs associated with this kind of public persona.
Essentially, Herrin’s production makes the point that this pair of public peacocks are two sides of the same coin who use similar rhetorical means to achieve different public ends but with themselves front and centre, often at considerable cost to those around them.
It is one of the great strengths of the play that their immediate circles are described with precision and a lot of wry humour. We get to meet the spouses – Buckley’s sprightly wife, Pat, socialite and influencer, who sees through everyone and is played with brio by Clare Foster; Howard Austen, Vidal’s long-suffering and rarely acknowledged partner is brought to cheerful life by Emilio Doorgasingh; and a range of assistants provide a tart commentary on events.
More substantially, there are more detailed contributions from Syrus Lowe as James Baldwin, providing the valuable alternative perspective of a black man who had previously debated Buckley in Oxford, and a wonderfully contrasted double-act from John Hodgkinson as both foul-mouthed Mayor Daley and the suave news anchor Howard K. Smith. As Elmer Lower, president of ABC, Kevin McMonagle delivers a broadly drawn, cynical portrait of a news executive determined to build his station by any and all means.
Designer Bunny Christie has devised a set framed by the ABC studio with the editorial suite above and a flexible space below onto which the studio set and various hotel interiors can be moved. The whole is framed by two staircases, and the studio windows also act as screens for projecting archive footage and real-time re-enactments. With so many rapid-fire scene changes, these are impressively well-thought-through solutions.
While the framing devices of the setting have their awkward moments, this reworking of a notorious confrontation succeeds admirably in evoking the intensity of the moment, the remarkable personalities involved, and the longer-term significance of this episode for the complex relationship of politics and the media.
At the Noel Coward Theatre until 18 February 2023.