Noel Coward Theatre, London – until 18 February 2023
Leaving the former Young Vic production a lad far too young to remember 1968 said sadly to me: “It was the beginning of Now, wasn’t it?” He is right. James Graham’s play, now spectacularly in the West End, is about the TV confrontations between the arch-conservative William F. Buckley and the maverick gay liberal Gore Vidal during an American election. But it also neatly prefigures today’s divisions, demonstrations and intolerances.
Thrillingly staged with projected news footage and sharply evoked riots in almost filmic fragments, it re-creates the world of Martin Luther King and Enoch Powell, Andy Warhol and Richard Nixon, while above it hang screen-shaped boxes where TV executives compete and plan. But it speaks loudly to us now, because this was the moment when television companies first sought ratings with attention-grabbing rows, and only fusty old-schoolers protested :“Opinions? No, the news does Facts!”
At its centre Zachary Quinto, feline and vain and teasing, is Gore Vidal this time. His opponent Buckley is, brilliantly, once again the black actor David Harewood. There is a sharp joke when in a flashback he approvingly interviews Enoch “rivers of blood” Powell, and there is real cleverness in that casting by director Jeremy Herrin.
Right wing speeches about how left-liberals just don’t understand working people need not emerge only from white faces. Harewood catches all the poetic-romantic pomposity of the man who was too easily provoked by Vidal’s drawling coolness: the cool cosmopolitan’s tactic is “I may not convert him, but I can annoy him”. But the ailing ABC network gets more than it bargained for when Vidal goes too far and resorts to the “Nazi” word, whereon Buckley is needled enough to retaliate with “Queer!” Overhead the staid TV execs gasp in horror (“Never mind viewers, my MOTHER just rang!”) but are comforted by a ratings jump.
It is marked, like all Graham’s work, by real humanity: a sense that people tearing lumps off one another in public or grasping for ratings are just humans, however imperfect. As a play it never flags and there are memorable cameos: brawny John Hodgkinson doubles as the senatorial anchorman Howard K.Smith and an unforgettable roaring, ranting Mayor Daley of Chicago. Syrus Howe is a thoughtful James Baldwin, and as Aretha Franklin Deborah Alli belts out the Star-Spangled Banner like a torch song, to the horror of the old-school conservatives. Even if you have no special interest in or memory of 1968, and resist British obsession with American politics, go and see it. Well worth it. And horribly enjoyable.