Young Vic Theatre, London – until 22 January 2022
Political commentators despair that the polarisation of debate has radically shaped our national life in recent years with Brexit, the election and removal of Trump, and the poisoned well of social media creating a context in which extremism and hate have flourished, even been rewarded in their dominance of our discourse.
In the dismantling of reasoned, healthy but respectful debate, entrenched positions have bred a distrust of facts and experts as well as increased notions of States conspiring against their citizens, while embedding the idea that an individual’s worth is indistinguishable from their views on a single contentious issue. James Graham’s new play Best of Enemies takes us back to the 1960s, demonstrating that the roots of our division partially lay in the creation of televised intellectual debating.
Based on a 2015 documentary of the same name, this series of debates on the American ABC network between two public intellectuals in 1968, left-wing writer Gore Vidal and the right-wing commentator William Buckley took place during the selection process at the Republican and Democratic conventions as each party selected their Presidential candidates. Graham puts this fractious interaction at the centre of a play that builds on many of the themes that define his work – the role of the media and especially news outlets in shaping public political understanding and belief, and the separation between grand political theory and the practical application of government, law and power beyond the political elite.
Graham’s work is always carefully structured and however the narrative is then overlaid, the play’s drive and shape come from a very precise framework that underpins the show. Across his canon, the writer has played with different structural bases – Quiz centred its two Act argument around the Case for the Prosecution and then for the Defence; Ink gave The Sun‘s Larry Lamb a year to increase circulation, punctuating the play with sales updates; Labour of Love ambitiously did a journey backwards and then forwards in time while plays like Bubble, The Angry Brigade and This House use an us-and0them perspective to cut between two sets of characters telling different parts of the same story. The mechanisms may differ but these structures set an audience at ease, giving reassurance that wherever the story is heading, the playwright is entirely in control of the material.
Best of Enemies absorbs dramatic lessons from the television and film work that Graham has undertaken, starting with a pivotal exchange at the end of the story – or at least the outrage following it – and spooling back to understand the combination of factors that led to this moment – a cinematic device. The play largely happens in a chronologically occurring flashback that mixes the separate personal and preparatory stories of Vidal and Buckley as they ready themselves for their televised verbal skirmishes, before repeatedly bringing them together to recreate excerpts from the debates themselves.
In doing so, Graham blends the known historical reality with the imagined (although well researched) private interactions off-camera to create a drama that, like Quiz, reinserts a rounded humanity into real historic characters flattened and reduced by the simplistic nature of media reporting which shapes the collective memory. More than spikey antagonists with opposite lifestyles and political affiliations, Vidal and Buckley instead take shape as individuals in a much wider of context of rapid and often quite violent political statement.
Key reference points include the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King in the same year as the debates take place in a nation still not quite reconciled to the Presidential shooting five years before. This was also the year of protest and activism across Europe and America with student demonstrations in France noted briefly in the plot, while the pivotal anti-Vietnam rallies sweep across the stage at various points between the debates. This bubbling tension, outbursts of violence and a growing combativeness in political interactions and State responses to them is vital in couching the Vidal-Buckley debate in a much wider and increasingly unstable context where polarisation of views was becoming more commonplace.
The echo of history and its preservation on television is woven tightly into the production directed by Jeremy Herrin for Headlong who builds on Graham’s textual approach that marries thoughtfulness with entertainment. Staged in the round at the Young Vic, in creating that wider context Best of Enemies has a complex technical set-up in which real footage of orations, rallies and protests is projected on screens around the room while the actors representing historic figures voice the speeches in time with the film. It’s a technique that is used sparingly but one that brings the wider social and political tides to life and, as Graham does with Vidal and Buckley, draws the two-dimensional screen image more purposefully into the room and the story.
The presence of cameras then becomes integral to the approach, placing the debating titans in the centre of the space while simultaneously capturing and projecting their comments and reactions around the room. This is not solely for visual purposes, the Young Vic is a contained space with good sightlines from all locations, but it reinforces the problematic nature of trying to understand history from film alone. While it may capture what is said, and the explosive outburst that Best of Enemies is building to which has, to some extent, subsequently defined perspectives on both men, the play demonstrates that why it was said and what it really meant is far more complicated – a warning that resonates well with a social media culture of soundbites and snippets that is equally reductive.
And Graham is scrupulously fair to both his characters and the positions they represent, offering all the shades of grey between them that leave the audience to decide whether these men are heroes, villains or something far more rounded. While the men are categorised by others as Republican or Democrat early in the play, Buckley immediately reorientates this as a discussion between conservatism of which he proudly advocates and the liberalism that Vidal represents while Graham rather neatly brings the two together. As the men work on their arguments, the tactics to lure the other onto the rocks and the witty remarks that form part of their pre-planned showmanship, the playwright subtly suggests the interlocutors perhaps have more in common than actually divides them – something Buckley’s wife goes on to say – and like This House the surface separation of the two camps slowly crumbles as the story unfolds even though their public personas take more antagonistic positions.
This is particularly notable in the extent to which both men are shown to play to the cameras, flattered by the idea that their views are being sought while the climbing ratings and evident enjoyment in the process of televised debating adds a hollow-ring to what they say. Graham is asking some really interesting questions here about the alignment between public posturing that brings rewards including acceptance and celebration by their respective communities, and their private beliefs, suggesting that the attention pushes both men to entrench in positions that, carried away by their platform, they (perhaps) don’t truly advocate. Being seen to win and having the means to outwit their opponent is more important than the content of their speechifying Graham suggests – a position reinforced in private scenes off-screen where surface strategies to goad one another and best the enemy dominate conversations in place of preparing arguments on their points of political division.
But more than their own reactions, it is the structures around them that Graham seeks to investigate, questioning the role of news channels in shaping modern political antipathy and the dilution of intellectual discourse through a focus on celebrity commentators and panellists. Like Larry Lamb’s team, the ABC news division purposefully uses the debates to disrupt traditional output and to save their ailing viewing figures. A central pillar within the play looks at the role of newscasters in presenting the facts while increasingly creating space for amateur commentary from those with political interests but without official intellectual credibility or credentials.
At the same time, Graham asks in the second half of the play about the value of intellectualism in politics when it separates those like Vidal and Buckley from the day-to-day reality of governance. Best of Enemies asks who really won? Vidal may have offered a suave and culturally-knowledgeable perspective that advocated reason and tolerance against some of Buckley’s less palatable views, but Nixon wins the election and the Hollywood actor, of whom Vidal is dismissive, is namechecked as a future President, so to what extent are social intellectuals out of touch with the general public and their needs – another theme that resonates with the vortex of recent US and UK politics which relates this story to the simpler, emotional messaging of modern politicians and their representation in the media.
David Harewood and Charles Edwards in the roles of Buckley and Vidal both play against type in some compelling and well nuanced performances. Harewood gives his ultra conservative character a gruff arrogance, a certainty that he can easily best his adversary and score significant political cache that would aid his own future aspirations within the party, following a failed mayoral bid in New York a few years before. But Harewood has the harder job in making his character appealing to a theatre audience, capturing Buckley’s changing fortunes and their effect, the slip in confidence in the early debates as Vidal outpaces him before a resurgence at the Democrat Convention as a growing frustration feeding off the anti-war protests courses through Harewood’s performance here leading neatly to the final confrontation that collapses his motivation in the rest of the play, eliciting some sympathy for the human cost when Buckley becoming enmeshed in his own rhetoric.
Edwards is superb as Vidal, balancing a widely-read intelligence with a catty bitterness that is never overplayed. Surrounded by a literary and celebrity following, Edwards places his interpretation of Vidal in a cultural bubble that separates him from the reality of the views he espouses while at the same time presenting quite as much ego and self-satisfaction as Buckley, enjoying the public performance and his time in the spotlight a little too much. Often very funny, particularly when rehearsing the bon mots that later appear in the debate, Edwards captures the waspishness of Vidal but balances it with a slow erosion of that confidence as the debates give Buckley the upper hand.
It ends with a fascinating imagined scene in which the men finally confront one another, no cameras, no posturing just reasonable and respectful interaction, a scene that pointedly underlines the separation of the political character that both men played in public and their multifaceted reality, two sides that the play attempts to reconcile by exploring the consequences of what should have been a small debate on a poorly received news station yet somehow came to symbolise and channel state-of-the-nation American political division. There is some equivalence with Frost / Nixon in the journalistic scrutiny applied to great men and the strategies used to entrap and chasten them, but in carefully selecting these turning points in modern political history and looking slightly to the side of well known figures, Graham’s plays more clearly reflect on our own political culture and the unreasonable debates we are now having every day.
Best of Enemies is at the Young Vic until 22 January with broadcast performances online from 20-22 January. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog
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In @headlongtheatre’s premiere of #BestOfEnemies at @youngvictheatre, @culturalcap1 finds @mrjamesgraham asking ‘interesting questions’ about public posturing vs private belief. @JerHerrin directs @DavidHarewood & Charles Edwards. #theatrereviews
‘James Graham asks interesting questions about public posturing versus private belief’: BEST OF ENEMIES – Young Vic Theatre