Writer: James Graham
Director: Jeremy Herrin
There is little 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, positing that the rot set in with a series of televised “debates” during the Republican and Democratic national conventions.
With broadcast network ABC struggling in the ratings behind rivals NBC and CBS, executives decided to shake up convention coverage by hosting a series of discussions between conservative William F Buckley, Jr (David Harewood) and liberal commentator Gore Vidal (Charles Edwards). The two men hated each other, and that animosity formed the basis for what became a series of ratings-grabbing slanging matches.
As befitting a character known for waspish one-liners, Edwards gets the juiciest lines, cutting through what he sees as Buckley’s self-regard with caustic wit. In contrast, Harewood’s over-serious Buckley is initially ill-prepared, having expected a serious, extemporaneous discussion rather than having to bat away Vidal’s carefully planned ad libs.
Harewood’s casting – one of Britain’s best black actors, playing a white conservative pundit – highlights how impossible it would have been at the time for a black man to have been given so much prominence on US television. This was the year in which Martin Luther King had been assassinated, and yet the civil rights movement barely registers in the Buckley/Vidal sparring. Neither side of the debates is favoured by Graham, who keeps the televised segments faithful to the broadcast elements, while imagining the behind-the-scenes discussions that happened off-air. The parallels with modern politics, with matters being discussed by people with little to no engagement with real life, takes aim at the top tiers of both US and British politics today.
Director Jeremy Herrin corrals an ensemble who take on various roles around the central pair. Most notable of these is Syrus Lowe as the novelist, essayist and activist James Baldwin. Lowe’s note-perfect portrayal shows Baldwin to be sharper, more astute and more intellectually piercing than Vidal, whose sense of showmanship tends to drown out any serious points.
Herrin also opts to display archive footage of the real figures portrayed on stage, who often perform speech in sync with their historical counterparts. From Baldwin to legendary news anchors Walter Cronkite and racist British politician Enoch Powell, this bold choice keeps the onstage action anchored in reality – or at least, the reality of politics by television.
As the debates progress and the Democratic convention in Chicago – which saw so many anti-Vietnam protestors that the city’s Mayor Daly (John Hodgkinson) deployed so many police that the conference centre became a highly-fortified prison for the delegates – tensions between the two debaters turns increasingly sour. What was supposed to be a clash of ideas becomes a pantomime boxing match between two egos.
And yet the ratings came pouring in, and the cult of personality took its permanent hold on politics. Graham’s closing scenes contain lines of dialogue that are maybe a little too on the nose in their sideswipes at modern politics – remarks on how a disastrous showman can ascend to the top, beating more experienced politicians who are charisma vacuums could only be more relevant if they included references to Christmas parties or dodgily financed flat refurbishments.
And yet even with such obvious sideswipes, Graham’s power to draw a line from 1968’s events to the politics of today is not undimmed. Best of Enemies illustrates how we got into the current mess of politics and political coverage, explaining how TV and politics is now dominated by Fox News, Farage, Johnson and more, at the expense of more reasoned, more productive alternatives.
There is no clue, however, in Graham’s writing of how the genie can be returned to the bottle. We have ended up with the politics we deserve: for any change to be possible in future, maybe we have to work on deserving that, too.
Continues until 22 January 2022