The London Theatre Review: West End’s Best of Enemies
Landing in London earlier that day, I didn’t know how prepared we were for Best of Enemies, the new play meticulously written by James Graham (This House) that is currently playing at the Noël Coward Theatre in the West End until February 18, 2023. Directed with a sharpness that draws blood by Jeremy Herrin (St. Ann’s/NT’s People, Places & Things), the play thrusts forward a pivotal moment in history, and not just television history. It plays out a conflict when “running out of time” clashed live and loud on camera between two sides of a testy political argument that still rings on today. Based on Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon’s 2015 documentary, this West End transfer from the Young Vic in 2021, Best of Enemies flips its dynamic channel into the “Firing Line“, broadcasting a particular moment for the whole country to decipher and ingest, when conservative views ran head first into liberalism, delivering an impressively captivating punch-theatrical event, worthy of all the awards this production is receiving and the excitement it delivers.
Digging deep into the intellectual and historical, as James Graham likes to do, this electric production ignites as good or even better than Ink and This House, both of which found dynamic intensity inside Rupert Murdoch’s takeover of the Sun newspaper and parliamentary divisions in the era of Thatcher. This go-round boxing match focuses the camera on the onscreen clashes between the New Left liberal, Gore Vidal, played to perfection by Zachary Quinto (Broadway’s Boys in the Band), and the staunch conservative, William F Buckley Jr, played by the powerhouse David Harewood (Young Vic’s Peribanez). It is when CBS executives decided, as a way to boost their flagging ratings, to bring ‘opinion’ and debate to the news. And with that one shift in the structure of reporting and news giving, the world changed, fueling a kind of maddening descent, one that we are grappling with big-time in today’s divisive political landscape.
On a spectacular camera-ready set, designed strong by Bunny Christie (Almeida Theatre’s Tammy Faye), Best of Enemies has an origin story, of a kind, to tell. Carving out glass boxes and multiple screens replaying the live action and adding sensational archive footage, courtesy of video designer Max Spielbichler (NT’s Afterlife), the play dynamically pulls us as if we are glued to the last episode of “The White Lotus“. It feels like event television. But this is history, more specifically, the lead-up to the 1968 US presidential nominating conventions and the election that soon followed. It’s a rewinding, back to that time when the assassinations of influential players dominated the news cycle, and caused a ripple effect that shifted the political landscape that is still being felt today.
This slice of conflictual history zooms in on a number of pivotal moments; speeches that changed the world, and protests that had lasting effects, underlining the tornado of emotional and ideological energy that flared up around these debates, building a fire that still can not be contained or put out. The play shoots from the hip, ringing forward all of the complications of that era to the forefront, with exacting lighting by Jack Knowles (West End/Broadway’s Caroline, or Change) and a captivating sound design by Tom Gibbons (Almeida/West End’s The Doctor). The point and shift in American politics and news programming become real, crystal clear, and powerfully dynamic, in the detrimental effect it had on our world and our political/social history. It ushered in celebrity obsession and angry conflict, that fed and overtook our culture, letting loose a horrific plague on all our houses, with one of the possible outcomes being that Orange Monster taking and trying to retake the White House.
Centering the action around these two equally detested political essayists, the battles shifted our focus from details to drama, making our television studios the place for National debate and grandstanding on a loud battleground scale. Inside two highly stylized, historical roles, the two leads never let history overwhelm their portrayals, somehow finding the humanity inside instead of bland impersonations on the out. Quinto is utterly fantastic and strong. Making his Vidal as snide and electric as can be. He finds inside a spectacularly convincing supervillain who talks from the left, dressed to the nines with a glass of champagne dangling in his leftist hand. His portrayal rachets up the bloody boxing match with Harewood’s Buckley simply by making Vidal’s’ swagger so compelling and different from his opponent.
Casting Harewood in the role of white rightwing conservative, Buckley, is a compellingly big gesture, finding the arrogance, fragility, and anger in the role, but adding the contrasting quality of race into the undercurrent picture. It works a kind of magic over us as we watch Harewood capture almost every aspect of Buckley’s privileged white man frame, except for the one we can’t deny, forcing us to play inside our own unconscious bias and comprehension about how race played a role in all this. The casting forces us to sharpen our eye on Buckley, and his wife, Patricia Buckley, played strongly by Clare Foster (Menier’s Travesties), and their view on race, a concept that is not addressed as succinctly as it could be. But it does resonate, particularly when unpacking the explosive debates between Buckley and James Baldwin, played well by Syrus Lowe (West End/Young Vic’s The Inheritance). The layers there are strong and intense.
Recreating these dynamic interactions, verbatim insults galore, the energy in the theatre sizzles with its long litany of complex thoughts and arguments, especially around sexuality, race, intellectualism, and societal norms. “People like blood sports” it is said, and with the second half set at the Democrat convention in Chicago, where two sides of the same political party are tugging hard to win the way forward, mainly because of an assassination that shifted everything and a policy war going on outside (and inside) its doors, Best of Enemies keeps elevating the articulate anger while also lowering the discourse in that one key moment that we are teased with from the start.
This highly-stylized combative match of a play shoots out like an ideological slap that still stings from across the aisle. Graham, finding the clash fuel for a fantastically compelling interpretation of what follows, excels on multiple fronts giving us a Best of Enemies worthy of its history and its everlasting effect. That shift we are still doing battle with to this very day. And even though the Buckley-Vidal debates were a rating triumph for ABC, they changed the world forever, inviting, for example, the entertainment network, Fox News, to enter and play on the field of actual news reporting, further enhancing or detracting the interplay of media and politics. Just look at what Graham had to say about that in Ink, and we all know where that led. Best of Enemies is a well-crafted event, destined for lasting effect and remembrance. Let’s hope it makes its way across the pond and fills a Broadway theatre with that same edge. I know I’ll tune in again.