6 December 2021
BEST OF ENEMIES (Young Vic Theatre) Review
It’s a tad difficult to review this play without saying at least a little bit about the plot, but there shouldn’t be any spoilers here, as the play portrays real events of the 1960s in America.
The focus of the play is the relationship between William F. Buckley Jr. (a conservative author and political commentator) and Gore Vidal (a cheeky liberal novelist). There is a lot more to both men, of course, but, if you don’t know who they are, you’ll just have to discover it during the play. Neither man was a prize, and they often clashed, which ultimately came to a head in an ugly exchange they had in a televised debate about the 1968 Democratic National Convention.
From what I understand, the 2021 play by James Graham (who’s been a darling of political stage satire for a while now) is an adaptation of the homonymously titled 2015 American documentary film. The writing is clever (no surprise there), and the play has been streamlined to let the audience slowly discover both Buckley and Vidal in the context of everything that was happening in the 60s. My only criticism is that there were 2 places where the writing felt forced and seeking a laugh in the context of Trump: something about how some rando on TV can end up in a position of power. I don’t think that was necessary and cheapened the play somewhat.
Jerremy Herrin (who had previously directed Graham’s “This House” at the National and “Labour of Love” at the Noel Coward; missed the former, saw and absolutely loved the staging of the latter) directed this in a way that went a long way toward making the play easy to digest. There are numerous bit parts, but only a handful of actors, so almost everyone plays multiple roles throughout. The space was used creatively, and sitting in the audience definitely felt like sitting in the TV studio. The use of historical clips was inspired.
David Harewood (Buckley) and Charles Edwards (Vidal) had an incredible spark feeding off one another. Honestly, having seen them, I can’t imagine another two actors this well-suited as a pair. I’d seen clips of the debate in question before, and both Harewood and Edwards were spot on with their respective mannerisms. With Edwards ever so smug and Harewood ever so fuming, the time flew by.
The two were supported by a sizeable cast, all of whom were terrific, but a couple deserve a special mention.
John Hodgkinson, who doubled as Howard Smith (the ABC news anchor who moderated the 1968 Buckley/Vidal debates) and Richard Daley (the mayor of Chicago during the Democratic National Convention) was captivating, especially when his characters exploded. I’m going to have to look out for more plays he is in. A little tip though, John: there is no universe in which Daley would’ve ever said “conTROversy” given he wasn’t British; it has always been and always will be “CONtroversy” in American English. But it made me giggle, so cheers for that!
Tom Goodwin, who played too many roles to count, is clearly a master of transformation. His Andy Warhol was the only character I thought could’ve been less of a caricature; every other one was just fab.
Clare Foster, as Buckley’s wife Patricia, played the stereotype extremely well. I don’t know what Mrs. Buckley was like in real life, but the portrayal hit the spot. Foster clearly doesn’t smoke, so she wasn’t lighting her cigarettes and was only miming the smoking. That’s absolutely fine, but one must remember to exhale the imaginary smoke after inhaling it 🙂
Last but not least, a major shout-out to Bunny Christie for a terrific set that did wonders with the space. My only disappointment was with how far forward the debate stage was. I had a reasonably good seat, but I think the view was obstructed for a larger portion of the audience than necessary.
A great show overall. If you get a chance to see it, do it (assuming you’re in the mood for some history and politics).
Cheapskate enjoyment value: £10.
Covid Note: Just sad. Masks are optional. One usher didn’t have one on, so what can we expect from the audience? One [different] usher, bless him, did try to approach individuals and urge/guilt them into putting on masks, but was largely ignored…