Young Vic Theatre Winter 2021-2022
James Graham’s ambitious play Best of Enemies, directed by Jeremy Herrin, takes us back to a politically divided and troubled America of 1968 and the televised debates taking place that year alongside the conventions in Miami for the Republicans and Chicago for the Democrats between the conservative William F. Buckley and the liberal Gore Vidal, played impressively by Charles Edwards.
Inspired by the documentary film of the same title, the play adds to the central dramatisation of the debates occasional brief documentary film footage of that traumatised year and scenes that show why the television network ABC decided to mount the debates. It also populates the one hundred and fifty minutes running time with various iconic figures of the period such as James Baldwin (Syrus Lowe), Aretha Franklin and Andy Warhol.
The dialogue is almost always witty and amusing. But we never lose sight of why 1968 was such a momentous year, with a war in Vietnam stoking up mass protests in America, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr and Robert Kennedy, the brutal beatings by police of peaceful protesters on the streets of Chicago that included Gore Vidal getting caught up in a police tear gas attack, the attempted murder of Andy Warhol and in London a huge march on the American Embassy.
It is an exciting play I enjoyed. Yet many people will have their reservations about the production despite the fine acting, the smooth change of scenes, the scope of its vision. The differences between the two central characters are softened and in an entirely imagined final scene run against the evidence of their continued conflict beyond '68 by showing them coming together on certain things.
The softening of the representation of the conflict between Buckley and Vidal is helped by the curious misguided casting of the black actor David Harewood as the white Buckley. Not only does Harewood not have the arrogant patrician tones of Buckley but given Buckley’s history of anti-black racism which in 1968 was still changing, this did not seem the occasion for colour-blind casting.
We do get a strong extract from James Baldwin’s speech in his Cambridge Union debate about racism with Buckley which ought to remind us where Buckley stands, but even that is softened by adding his later interview with the racist UK politician Enoch Powell in which he raises a point that challenges Powell.
There is also something unsatisfactory about the numerous appearances of James Baldwin which, apart from the Cambridge debate, take the form of moments in which he briefly appears to offer wise words to Gore Vidal in a manner that might for some people conjure up the very old stereotype of the ‘magical Negro’.
Nevertheless, those audiences looking for the familiar comfort of James Graham’s fun shows about politics will not be disappointed. Best of Enemies is a wonderfully cosy Xmas treat. It won’t politically confront its audiences or give them hope in the way the people it depicted wanted to do in 1968, but it will entertain and remind us of a time that has many similarities to our own.
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Review of Best Of Enemies - Young Vic Theatre 2021