Theatre

‘Best of Enemies’ review – James Graham’s discourse drama is delightful déjà vu

★★★★

“Why can’t we all just get along” is, effectively, the central question being asked by Quiz scriptwriter James Graham in his latest political play, Best of Enemies. Inspired by the 2015 documentary of the same name, the Young Vic and Headlong co-production focusses on a series of televised debates aired on the struggling ABC network in 1968, between the liberal Gore Vidal (Charles Edwards) and conservative William F. Buckley Jr. (David Harewood) in the United States. For the most part, it goes about as well as you’d expect.

Make no mistake, however, that equal sides of the political spectrum are scrutinised. In fact, it feels like a deliberate choice to have a Black man play Buckley Jr. and for Gore to be portrayed with a provocative personality – not least because Harewood’s casting perhaps goes against the stereotype that you cannot be Black and conservative, and challenges left-wing identity politics. Edwards, meanwhile, adopts the personality of your typical right-wing caricature or provocateur, albeit on the left. A moment where Buckley catches Vidal off-guard sees the latter fumble in a way not too dissimilar to Boris Johnson’s disastrous speech to the CBI in November. Best of Enemies, in a subtle sense, makes the case that there are certainly ways in which those on opposite ends of the political spectrum are alike.

Not only that, but that we’re in the same position now as we were almost 50 years ago. Public discontent (then, Vietnam; now, a dysfunctional government), sensationalist media (then, a heated and televised debate; now, certain right-wing newspapers) and an inability for people to have a civilised debate. At its most meta, we see history repeat itself as the cast act out televised moments from history behind them, on one of the three giant TV screens. The resemblance is uncanny, and most striking in Syrus Lowe’s portrayal of novelist James Baldwin, finely executed to the mannerism.

No closer are the ties between media and politics conveyed, by the way, than in the combination of set and video design by Bunny Christie and Luke Halls respectively. In Christie’s set, the three aforementioned TV screens serve as the gallery for stressed producers alongside impressive live and recorded projections. Interactions which aren’t framed through a particular lens are the most constructive, especially towards the end of the play, and there’s something to be said in that. Halls’ live videos, meanwhile, offer a thrilling and engaging cinematic edge, akin to Ivo van Hove’s Network both stylistically and in narrative.

In retrospect, it’s no surprise that Jeremy Herrin directs the production, having previously worked on the not too dissimilar This House. To describe Best of Enemies as the US version of the 2012 National Theatre production wouldn’t be entirely accurate, nor fair, but both follow an almost identical narrative around putting political differences aside for “the greater good”- in this case, it appears to be the understanding that the best political debates happen outside of parameters set by media channels with their own agenda to follow. Those which don’t make politics provocative, personal and performative, in remarks which are a less than discreet reference to a former occupant of the White House.

These arguments may not feel particularly new, and I struggled to find much in terms of a proposed solution to the modern day toxicity of political discourse, but that does not diminish the long-proven fact that our past can sure teach us a lot about the present and beyond. Best of Enemies takes us back to the advent of a new kind of political broadcasting and media-political relationship, at the same time demonstrating the surprising and entertaining contemporaneity of 1960s America. There is a part of me which is somewhat disappointed by the lack of some sort of ‘grand takeaway’, but sometimes we just need a historical reminder of past politics – and who better than James Graham to do that?

Best of Enemies is now playing at the Young Vic Theatre until 22 January 2022.

An audio described performance will take place on 17 December, with captioned and relaxed performances taking place on 6 January and 13 January respectively.

The production will be broadcast online from 20-22 January, with subtitles, audio description and British Sign Language (BSL) interpretation available.


Production Images: Wasi Daniju.

Disclaimer: I was invited to review ‘Best of Enemies’ for free as a member of the press in exchange for a review of the performance. I did not receive payment for this article and all opinions stated are honest and my own.

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