Review: Best of Enemies at the Young Vic Theatre

Friday, 17th December 2021 — By Lucy Popescu

Best of Enemies_David Harewood and Charles Edwards (c) Wasi Daniju

David Harewood and Charles Edwards. Photo: Wasi Daniju

Young Vic Theatre

James Graham’s compelling and provocative play explores the intersection of the media and politics in 1968 America. It’s election year and the TV network ABC decide to launch a series of political debates to shore up their viewing figures. The two men chosen to pit their wits against each other are white conservative William F. Buckley Jr (played here in colour-blind casting by David Harewood) and the liberal Gore Vidal (Charles Edwards).

In a radical move, ABC allows the clash of these intellectual titans to go out live and unscripted. Set against the backdrop of widespread opposition to the Vietnam War, Buckley and Gore are employed to cover the Republican and Democratic conventions in Miami and Chicago and discuss the pressing issues of poverty, inequality, empathy and freedom.

But it’s a febrile time – indelibly marked by the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy – and America is sharply divided. More often, the two pundits descend into cheap political point-scoring and personal attacks.

Various executives, producers, anchor men, as well as friends and lovers of the two men, are emotionally invested in the debates. Not only does ABC achieve their desired ratings, the network’s success changed the very nature of political debate, ensuring that live televised polemic became the new norm.
Reflecting the equally momentous cultural changes taking place, Graham has seminal figures such as James Baldwin (Syrus Lowe), Aretha Franklin (Justina Kehinde), Tariq Ali (Sam Otto) and Andy Warhol (Tom Godwin) acting as ‘witnesses’.

Bunny Christie transforms the Young Vic’s main stage into a television studio, complete with portable cameras, production suite and multiple screens. Jeremy Herrin’s well-paced production and pitch-perfect performances ensure we are transfixed throughout.

These early televised debates were intended to make people listen to each other. As Graham suggests, the opposite is now true — charisma and entertainment are more important than the quality of the argument.

Until January 22

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