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Put David Harewood in anything and I will watch, I miss him on Homeland when I rewatch, and I purposely do not watch the episode where he dies. Can’t bear it. He is an exceptional actor and so you will find in the play Best of Enemies that is currently in London until the 18th of February. Along with Zachary Quinto. They make an excellent cast for a politically titillating play that portrays events leading up to the 1968 US presidential election.
Often you look at a political landscape from way back when, or not so way back, and you wonder whether we have moved forward progressively or regressed further back. This play makes you question the politics of today, and as they were back then. William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal were two political commentators and rivals who are hired by a struggling network for their ability to boost ratings. See, nothing has much changed because it’s all about the numbers and numbers, whatever the narrative churned out by press, do not lie. However, more important, these two rivals seek out and talk to the political conscience of fraught America- the average amendment loving American to the intellectual- they both represented the soul of the political landscape. Buckley Jr. represented that right of the country, an emerging new right wing of the republican party, the right of the very right and Vidal engages the minds of the liberals with new age ideas, bright young minds amid student protests. In today’s world, Vidal’s views would be more palatable to the young even if his personal life would still serve as a fodder for gossip as it was back then, and is a source of controversy. For all his liberalism, he understands to walk the rope just right because America then, was not ready to accept him much as it loves to think itself a purveyor of progression, whilst Buckley Jr. would speak to the older generation; much of everything never really changes does it?
James Graham, the playwright, finds that correlation between the politics of yesterday to that of today and is also able to show how much language desensitises or engages an audience to a great extent, how much more offence is normalised. That thing when people say they are “saying it as it is” sometimes just to excuse their bad behaviours and piss poor morals. The dire dance between politics, the stars it creates, and the media, is often times sinister and framed in the narrative of civil unrest and an unpopular war, assassinations of Bobby Kennedy, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. it only exacerbated the tension. Quinto is fantastic as Vidal, that mocking nasal droll of his that slivers almost, Harewood is sublime playing the white conservative Buckley; it takes a certain type of talent to find the fine line in such a role and he finds it perfectly. It’s funny how both characters are played by actors who were not alive at the time of these debates and that is a testament to Graham’s mastery as the play’s producer, because he hones in on the mood of the time. The bigger personalities such as James Baldwin, Andy Warhol, Aretha Franklin who make cameos are somewhat irrelevant to the meat on the bones, merely echoes, and yet they show us the periphery in the main; how the media can either inform to unite or incite when it comes up against political conscience.
The gist of the story fits in with the political landscape of today, especially in Britain and America where much of the political drama has been fought over identity politics, freedom of speech, student protests…the wider and ever growing chasm between the young and the old, left and right, all so well captured.
The set, the set, the set; glass editorial suites morph into TV screens within a wider TV screen where producers are deep in the backstage chaos of producing a show with two characters whose loathing for each other is meant to sell them to the wider audience but only ends up causing them something akin to a heart attack after every episode because someone is bound to say something to upset a political subset.
It’s good, it’s very, very good. Excellent, because of the relatability of these characters and the volatility of the political landscape, it could easily be today’s society, these could easily be our issues today; some still are, the division it can sew in society and the rotten underbelly it can reveal about who we are as people, which isn’t much different, what we want, which isn’t much at all. In an afterlife dialogue Buckley Jr. and Vidal reflect on where they were and what could have been and in a way they speak to us, remind us of where contrarians for the sake of it, for the sake of a soundbite, can lead us to if we are not careful.
This is a brilliant, brilliant play that is a must see.