A play about a battle for the heart and soul of American politics, Simon Evans’ production of Gore Vidal’s The Best Man couldn’t feel more timely.
Martin Shaw is Secretary of State William Russell, contender for nomination as the Democratic presidential candidate – principled and intellectual, but a serial philanderer who has suffered from (and hidden) serious mental health issues. His main competitor is slick, religious, family man Joseph Cantwell (Jeff Fahey), who may – or may not – have some scandalous secrets of his own.
Although premiered in 1960 and dressed in the trappings of the time, the piece often feels like it was written with last November’s election firmly in mind. It deftly captures the anti-intellectualism that plagues much of today’s politics, with Russell being criticised for being “too clever” and Cantwell praised for his “regular guy” shtick.
The scrutiny the women in their lives face also feels sadly familiar. Gemma Jones is a sly delight as Democratic grandee Mrs Gamadge, a character that would feel at home in the pages of Austen or Wharton, demurely dictating what “the women” find acceptable, and outlining the damned if you do, damned if you don’t dilemma the candidates’ wives face: not doing too much, not doing too little, looking nice enough to be seen to make an effort, but not so nice as to be threatening. Honeysuckle Weeks is amusing as the gauche and bitchy Mabel Cantwell, if a little pitched towards the caricature. Glynis Barber fares better, all cool reserve in her more subtle and complex role as a woman frustrated by her sexless marriage but willing – indeed increasingly eager – to take her place on the political stage.
Shaw lends his trademark stately gravitas to Russell (though I heard grumbles in the interval that he wasn’t always as audible or as clear as he might be, and he does sometimes mumble). Fahey is a worthy opponent, self-righteous and hot tempered, a man whose singular focus makes him dangerously blind. Jack Shepherd is in scene-stealing form as ex-President Hockstader, all old-school charm and homespun wisdom, but with an underlying seam of anger and pathos, while Anthony Howell gives suitably slick spin as Shaw’s campaign manager, Dick Jensen.
For such a wordy play, it never feels static, although in a post-West Wing world, it’s hard not to wish it was slightly tighter. But Vidal’s humour remains remarkably fresh, and the piece remains (depressingly) relevant.
The Best Man is on a UK tour until October 28th. For more details, click here.