Best of Enemies at the Young Vic: A dense, ambitious political tinderbox
James Graham is among the best political playwrights working today, responsible for gems including This House, innovative live-streamed election-night saga The Vote, and the screenplay for the lauded TV drama Brexit: The Uncivil War.
His plays are painstakingly researched, probing the innards of political life and finding moments of joy, humour or horror amid the esoteric workings of great institutions.
In Best of Enemies he turns his attention to American politics, using a series of televised debates between William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal – aired during the primaries for the 1968 election in which Richard Nixon was elected – as a lens through which to explore the toxification of political dialogue.
Executives at ABC hope that bringing together arch conservative Buckley and snake-tongued author Vidal will create the kind of fireworks they need to reverse their flagging ratings, but aren’t quite prepared for the sea change the bitter confrontations will help to bring about.
It’s impossible to ignore the parallels with Frost/Nixon, a play that was given the Hollywood treatment by Ron Howard, and at times Best of Enemies feels like an unofficial prequel, albeit with slightly less explosive material to draw from. The two men are played brilliantly by David Harewood and Charles Edwards, who lend gravitas to these men on the fringes of their respective parties, their arrogance barely masking their insecurities, creating a tinder-box environment that looks set to light at any moment.
Graham has clearly done his homework and he assumes his audience have also done theirs – there’s no coddling here, no scene setting or exposition dumping, you’re immediately immersed in the world of late-60s American network TV. Aretha Franklin and Andy Warhol show up, and both live video and documentary footage is broadcast from screens peppering the theatre. Combined with striking jump-cuts between scenes, it creates a baffling, slightly overwhelming first half.
Things settle as the play develops, however, with the thrilling confrontation in the final debate – presaged during the opening moments – starkly contrasting with a thoughtful, imagined conversation between the two men.
Best of Enemies is an ambitious play, sometimes a little too ambitious, but it’s worth persevering with to hear Graham’s origin story for today’s toxic political culture.