It’s an easy, unimaginative but not inaccurate comparison to make, between James Graham’s writing and the West Wing. Whenever I watch something by the former, I like it for all the same reasons as I do the latter. It’s dense, quick, entertaining, draws humanity and excitement from bills and legislation, there’s never any dead air and it often feels positively nourishing and nutritious to take in.
I inhaled This House like no other dialogue-heavy play I’ve watched, clinging onto it through a dusty laptop screen during lockdown one, and I’ve re-watched Quiz with new family members at 6-month intervals since it aired. This year especially, Graham has been highlighted as this country’s brightest talents and most prolific political playwrights. However, I have an increasing worry that he is less of a political playwright where the script happens to be entertaining, but an entertainment writer where politics happens to be the setting. Best of Enemies is not packing the political punch I believe it’s intending to. I leave the theatre and sit with a sense of what I realise is slight embarrassment in the days following.
The production at the Young Vic depicts what you might call the beginnings of opinion TV. 1968 saw the first primetime news programme in the US to pitch a well-known liberal and a well-known conservative against each other and let them battle it out on air. These pioneering opinion pundits William Buckley Jr and Gore Vidal, are played by David Harewood and Charles Edwards respectively, and the two actors sparkle. It’s exciting and electrifying to watch them battle, it makes me despair at our own stumbling politicians. They are intensely brilliant thinkers, but more flaw than substance, more hole than cloth. They are Men full of ideas, but more full of their idea of themselves. They want attention and they want to win more than they want their causes to be furthered.
I often think, cynically, that most people don’t passionately believe in their politics as much as they believe in how it makes them look. Being vocal about your politics helps you fit into a community, makes you appear informed and intelligent, but most importantly fulfils the image you have in your head of yourself, of someone who cares, believes in things, thinks of others first, when we’re all primarily concerned with ourselves.
The two men debate set against the backdrop of the 1968 election, the splitting of the democratic party and eventual triumph of Richard Nixon. We shift in between scenes of Buckley and Vidal’s interior lives, overlapping and paralleling to the televised debates, which are delivered almost verbatim from 1968. I’m a little disappointed that the cameras are not used to their full potential in the interview scenes. The Jeremy Herrin and Bunny Christie’s staging sets me up for what I think is going to be something very surprising and dynamic- there are screens situated around the whole audience- but they’re never played with or referenced, and the prop cameras are simply wheeled in and out as the screens turn on and off.
I think this is the production’s problem. The subject matter is shallow, so the production is 2D. It’s about men concerned with their appearance, network execs concerned with ratings, elected officials concerned with themselves. It’s a play about careless people being motivated by shallow things. Which isn’t necessarily a problem! It’s certainly fun, and I like to be entertained with witty dialogue as much as the next punter- except that I get the sense this production is really TRYING to make this shallow subject Extremely Topical and Relevant with a capital E, T and R.
It makes constant ham-fisted reference and parallel to our current unhappy times, and how opinion-led politics, and debate for the sake of debate has killed democracy. To make this point, Graham writes in characters as ‘witnesses’ for short scenes, including Aretha Franklin, who was there, James Baldwin, who was there. But the brief cameos and slight comic relief these characters are thrown into feels gawdy. James Baldwin, who is by far the most interesting and articulate historical figure in this play and is a highlight performance from Syrus Lowe, comes across as a kind of ethereal pixie, leaving Vidal with the words ‘Be Good, Be Happy’- which is hard not to take as a kind of short changing for such an important writer and activist!
The last scene hammers home the danger of letting a reality TV programme or charismatic show host decide your politics. Or one day, it warns, such an unsuitable TV candidate may run for office. The line gets a laugh from the audience, but to me it all feels five years out of date. It’s entertaining, I enjoyed it, I told people I liked it, but it’s not moving. It’s some great writing performed really well, and the subject matter is interesting. But the attempt to add depth to the subject and draw relevance to the present moment ends up being to the detriment of this whole production.
Best of Enemies is on until 22nd January 2022. More info and tickets here.