Review: Best Of Enemies Is A Topical Treat That Fizzes With Angry Energy
If, like me, you can happily swerve most of the festive schmaltz but still want a theatre treat this season, Best Of Enemies could be for you. It’s highly topical since it asks the question — do we prefer our leaders to lead or entertain us?
Sometimes it’s both, of course, and writer James Graham hints that this could be possible through his depiction of the epic on-screen battles between legendary — in his own mind, at least — author Gore Vidal and William F Buckley, an early neocon full of patriotic fervour and disdain for those resisting “traditional” values.
Best Of Enemies recreates the duo's groundbreaking TV debates during the 1968 party convention season — a ploy by ABC at a time when the network was a poor third behind its main ratings rivals. David Harewood (Buckley) and Charles Edwards (Vidal) positively fizz with angry energy like wasps in a jar — initially unable to decide between high-minded debate and bitchy mud-slinging, before propitiously plumping for the latter.
“I may once have referred to the Buckley family as a sort of Sick Kennedys,” says Gore, “which for some reason he took personally. Of course the personal is now the political.” This was new territory for television and a ratings winner, which Graham believes opened the floodgates for Fox and friends.
It can be tempting with history to lapse into knowing self-regard, but Graham resists this by using transcripts of the original broadcasts and not depicting either protagonist as a caricature of his attitudes. The 21st century framing narrative helps, as does Jeremy Herrin’s full-of-life direction, which creates a sense of sliding towards the inevitable.
Bunny Christie’s setting, meanwhile, makes full use of the Young Vic’s limited space and Justina Kehinde’s Aretha Franklin cameo at the beginning of act one deserves a special mention.
“What the average American is trying to work out,” Buckley is told, “is who is the better person. And in so doing, whose America they want to live in. His or yours. That’s it — that’s all this is. ‘Who do I like most?’”
This is one party you can’t pretend to ignore this December.
Best of Enemies, Young Vic (Waterloo), £10-45, until 22 Jan
Photography: Wasi Daniju
Last Updated 17 December 2021