Theatre review - Best of Enemies

James Graham’s compelling play Best of Enemies explores the intersection of media and politics in 1968 America.


It’s election year and the TV network ABC decide to launch a series of political debates to shore up their viewing figures. The two men chosen to pit their wits against each other are white conservative William F Buckley Jr (played here in colour-blind casting by David Harewood) and the liberal Gore Vidal (Charles Edwards).


In a radical move, ABC allow the clash of these intellectual titans go out live and unscripted. Set against the backdrop of widespread opposition to the Vietnam War, Buckley and Gore are employed to cover the Republican and Democratic conventions in Miami and Chicago and discuss the pressing issues of poverty, inequality, empathy and freedom.


But it’s a febrile time - indelibly marked by the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy - and America is sharply divided. More often the two pundits descend into cheap political point-scoring and personal attacks.


Various executives, producers, anchor men, as well as friends and lovers of the two men, are emotionally invested in the debates. Not only did ABC achieve their desired ratings, the network changed the very nature of political debate, ensuring that live televised polemic became the new norm.


Drawing on the period’s equally momentous cultural changes, Graham has seminal figures such as James Baldwin (Syrus Lowe), Aretha Franklin (Justina Kehinde), Tariq Ali (Sam Otto) and Andy Warhol (Tom Godwin) acting as ‘witnesses’.


Bunny Christie transforms the Young Vic’s main stage into a television studio, complete with portable cameras, production suite and multiple screens. Jeremy Herrin’s well-paced production and pitch-perfect performances ensure we are transfixed throughout.


These early televised debates were intended to make people listen to each other. Best of Enemies suggests that the opposite is now true — charisma and entertainment are more important than the quality of the argument. until Jan 22

Originally publishd by Camden New Journal