Review: Best of Enemies, Young Vic ★★★★★

It seems that James Graham has done it again in this Headlong/Young Vic co-production. Almost a decade after their hit This House, Graham and director Jeremy Herrin have once again combined to take a historical political event and turned it into essential viewing for the modern age.

It is 1968 and the Republican and Democratic conventions are meeting to decide their candidates for the next presidential race. Meanwhile, in an attempt to rise from the bottom of the TV ratings table where they lag behind CBS and NBC, ABC plot an alternative ‘unconventional conventions coverage’ – pitting two prominent proponents of the conservative and liberal wings of America against each other in live TV date on each night of the convention. They are the conservative William F Buckley Jr (David Harewood) and the liberal Gore Vidal (Charles Edwards, also of This House). It is the original culture war, Graham seems to be telling us.

David Harewood and Charles Edwards in Best of Enemies. Photo: Wasi Daniju

Both Harewood and Edwards are fantastic. Others may say something of the race blind casting of a black man as the white Buckley Jr – in Harewood’s hands it is irrelevant, as it should be. Harewood is a master of the role, embodying a self-assured and distinguished Buckley Jr before unravelling in one explosive moment. Edwards has perhaps the ‘nicer’ of the two roles, playing a smooth and debonair Vidal. It is a joy to watch them both, in turns, squirm and stammer when their aggressor has gotten the better of them.

The supporting cast, who expertly double as a variety of characters and celebrities of the time, are tremendous – not least Kevin McMonagle’s part-Al Pacino, part-Rudy Giuliani take on ABC Head of News Elmer Low and Syrus Lowe’s perfectly weighted take on a suave James Baldwin. Such is the quality of the company it would be possible to mention any of the performances Emilio Doorgasingh, Clare Foster, Tom Godwin, John Hodgkinson, Justina Kehinde, and Sam Otto in addition to those highlighted.

There are not just echoes of This House, but of Frost/Nixon too – with the two men sat opposite each other on television – and a touch of Ivo Van Hove in the use of cameras on-stage with the live debate projected above the stage as well as archival footage of events of the period, including speeches by James Baldwin, Martin Luther King Jr and Bobby Kennedy which are acted out below as the original footage plays above. There is, of course, the enviable nod to a recent occupant of the White House, whose political career followed his success on television, in an epilogue to the main piece that feels a little unnecessary and is perhaps the only misstep of the evening.

Emilio Doorgasingh, Kevin McMonagle, Syrus Lowe and John Hodgkinson in Best of Enemies. Photo: Wasi Daniju

What Graham expertly achieves is to make these intellectual heavyweights accessible, giving us an insight into their minds behind the scenes of the debates – and by doing so providing an understanding of their positions and why they stood for their beliefs. The criticisms of the left and of the right feel all the more pertinent – the left split and with their ideals alienating their traditional bases and the right putting their differences aside to unite behind one candidate. Sound familiar?

All of this is no mean feat – this could easily have been a dry, pseudo-intellectual evening of theatre. Instead Graham’s writing combined with Herrin’s sharp and pacy direction, and a masterclass in characterisation by Harewood and Edwards, turn these events of 53 years ago into a tense and gripping piece of theatre that feels even more relevant now.

Best of Enemies is at the Young Vic from 4 December until 22 January 2022