Best of Enemies – Young Vic, London

Author: James Graham

Directed by Jeremy Herrin

There is no doubt that television has shaped the modern political landscape, and not for the better. James Graham’s new play, Best of Enemies, turns the clock back to America in 1968, postulating that the rot began with a series of televised “debates” during National Republican and Democratic Congresses.

With television station ABC struggling with audience ratings behind rivals NBC and CBS, executives decided to shake up congressional coverage by opening a series of discussions between the conservative William F Buckley Jr. (David Harewood) and the liberal commentator Gore Vidal (Charles Edwards) hosted. The two men hated each other, and this hostility formed the basis for a series of rating-earning slanging matches.

As befits a character who is known for hideous one-liners, Edwards gets the juiciest lines and cuts through what he sees as Buckley’s self-respect with biting wit. In contrast, Harewood’s over-serious Buckley is ill-prepared at first, expecting a serious, impromptu discussion rather than knocking off Vidal’s carefully planned ad-libs.

Harewood’s casting – one of Britain’s top black actors playing a white Conservative expert – underscores how impossible it would have been for a black man to get so much attention on US television at the time. This was the year Martin Luther King was assassinated, and yet the civil rights movement barely registers itself in the Buckley / Vidal sparring. Neither side of the debates is favored by Graham, who keeps the televised segments true to the air as he envisions the behind-the-scenes discussions that took place in the open air. The parallels with modern politics, where issues are discussed by people who are little or no real-life engagement, target the top tier of US and UK politics today.

Director Jeremy Herrin puts together an ensemble that takes on various roles around the central couple. Most notable is Syrus Lowe as the novelist, essayist, and activist James Baldwin. Lowe’s perfected portrayal shows that Baldwin is sharper, more astute, and more intellectually penetrating than Vidal, whose flair for showmans tends to drown out serious points.

Herrin also chooses to display archive footage of the real characters portrayed on stage, often speaking in sync with their historical counterparts. From Baldwin to legendary newscaster Walter Cronkite to racist British politician Enoch Powell – this bold choice keeps the stage action anchored in reality – or at least in the reality of television politics.

As the debates progressed and the Chicago Democratic Congress saw so many anti-Vietnam protesters that the city’s Mayor Daly (John Hodgkinson) dispatched so many police officers that the conference center became a high-density prison for delegates – tensions between the two debaters are getting pissed off. What was intended as a collision of ideas becomes a pantomime boxing match between two egos.

And yet the ratings poured in, and the personality cult held onto politics permanently. Graham’s closing scenes contain lines of dialogue that may be a little too intrusive in their swipes at modern politics – comments on how a disastrous showman can rise to the top defeating more seasoned politicians who are charisma vacuums might only be more relevant if with references to Christmas parties or questionably financed apartment renovations.

Yet Graham’s power to draw a line from the events of 1968 to today’s politics is not unclouded, even with such obvious swipes. Best of Enemies illustrates how we’ve gotten into the current mess of politics and political reporting, and explains how television and politics are now being dominated by Fox News, Farage, Johnson, and others, at the expense of more sensible, more productive alternatives.

However, there is no suggestion in Graham’s writings as to how the spirit can be returned to the bottle. In the end we have the politics we deserve: In order for change to be possible in the future, we may have to work to make it deserve.

To be continued until January 22, 2022

The review hub score

Entertaining political sparring

London Herald