Young Vic Theatre, London – until 22 January 2022
James Graham’s mission might seem unfashionable: trawling 20th-century history and public culture, looking not for villains and heroes but for the nuances of human behaviour, the nature of argument and the futility of hating or “cancelling” an opponent rather than listening, and valuing the fact that they are fallible human beings shaped by idiosyncratic forces and habits of thought, just like you.
He did it with MPs, with Labour loyalists, with tabloid hacks and the very Murdoch himself; he did it with possibly-cheating quiz contestants and their TV exploiters. He bends his eye on them, recreates, wonders, tries to understand, and without unsubtly banging the drum delivers lessons for today.
This time he is in the US, and the famous debates between the extreme right-wing, patriotism-and-family, traditionalist William F Buckley Jr and the maverick cosmopolitan controversialist Gore Vidal, friend of Kennedys. They were recruited by the failing TV network ABC, whose ratings panic is very funnily evoked as they disguise it with flapdoodle about “elevating public discourse”.The idea is that the men should comment, from their different sides, on a series of election-year conventions.
In other words, entertain the nation by tearing lumps off each other in a style now common but then considered odd. “Opinions?” Cries an old-school presenter “The News does facts!” Ah, the old days. (Another interesting prefiguration of the future, by the way, is when Justina Kehinde as Aretha Franklin torch-songs her way through the Star-spangled banner and some are appalled: today in the US that showbizzation of the national anthem is a norm, but makes me grateful to think how rarely we do it. The only big example was James May twanging it on the roof of Buckingham Palace at the Golden Jubilee..)
Anyway: Charles Edwards is a superb Gore Vidal, his elegant lightness evoking the still-young controversialist who knew that you should “never refuse sex or a chance to be on TV”, who got teasing fun out of calling Buckley “Billy”, but who after the brutally suppressed Chicago demonstrations is genuinely shaken and afraid for what is happening to America. Buckley, in a brilliant stroke of casting, is played by David Harewood. The real right-wing bruiser was no respecter of people of colour, of course, so that might seem odd, excellent though the actor is: but in the event there’s an interesting bite when in this very diverse South London theatre you have Harewood – who is black – eloquently condemning the liberal elite for self-indulgence and a lack of contact with ordinary working people.
Around the debates and tactical plotting scenes, up pop figures from Mayor Daley to James Baldwin, Enoch Powell to Tariq Ali; between scenes, surges of demonstrators rush through the central arena with smoke and placards and racket (Director Jeremy Herrin is a master of keeping clarity and pace through quick-move, filmic fragments). A flash-forward at the start keeps you aware we are building up to the explosive moment when Vidal calls Buckley (who had served, albeit Stateside, in WW2), a “crypto-Nazi” whereon Buckley calls him a queer and threatens to sock him in the face. At the start we had seen the TV executives horrified (“Sponsors? never mind that, my MOTHER rang!”) . But in the reprise at the end they realize with delight how it has pushed up the ratings. Thus beautifully making Graham’s point that media behaviour has now driven us farther and deeper into this kind of ad-hominem poverty of constructive argument.
It’s an entertaining, instructive, questioning, honest play, with a downbeat and moving end as the two men might speak after their death. If like me you came of age in 1968, shaken at the assassinations of Luther King and Robert Kennedy, arguing with your Dad about Vietnam and horrified at Powell, then seeing it recreated is obviously catnip: student demos both sides of the Atlantic, hippies, an absurd flop-haired wimpy Andy Warhol. But to newer generations would all this, I wondered, seem like just a history play?. I think not. In the interval I got talking to a young neighbour (the Young Vic atmosphere is always like that) and he was as engrossed as I was, and observed with sad wisdom, “It was the beginning of Now, wasn’t it?”.
Box office youngvic.org to 22 Jan
‘An entertaining, instructive, questioning, honest play’: @lib_thinks came of age in 1968, when @MrJamesGraham’s #BestOfEnemies is set but finds younger generations also engrossed at @youngvictheatre. ★★★★ #theatrereviews