THE RUSH AND thrust of politics can date very easily. Particularly within the ambit of a staged play. In the hands of the makers of James Graham’s Best of Enemies, however, the political narrative surges with lifeblood that is timeless. The public conversation that is the focus of this play really happened, in 1968. The play takes what could be dry material and raises it to singe your sensibilities and blow your mind. It is currently being screened at Cinema Nouveau in Rosebank and Brooklyn, until 28 October, a shining product of National Theatre Live.
Focused on the ground-shifting debate hosted by American TV station ABC News over the presidential campaign at the time, which got neo-conservative William F. Buckley (David Harewood) head-to- head with liberal writer, Gore Vidal (Zachary Quinto), the film is basically about two men talking. But it is crafted with a slickness and a wisdom that will keep you on the edge of your chair, as though it were a hair-raising thriller. It has the potency and socially critical edge of Sidney Lumet’s 1976 film, Network, and brings the superstars of the 1960s, from Aretha Franklin and John F Kennedy, to Andy Warhol and James Baldwin with cutting edge acuity, in cameos, that serve the period under scrutiny.
If you’re familiar with the rhetoric of the period, which famously saw Marshall McLuhan articulating an understanding of new technology – reflecting the medium as the message – in the face of television, the whole work will sing for you. If you’re not, the words will. There’s a beautiful biting edge to the vicious repartee between two men on opposite sides of the political line, put out into the public domain to preen themselves as best they can. But be warned: this is no easy platitudinous watch. You are watching what amount to a boxing match with words designed to bruise. And it pulls out all the stops as a piece of entertainment
Of course, it’s a debate contrived by ABC news to froth up fans rather than reach profound truths. And what’s better than a bit of blood sports, to get people to tune in? People who will judge a public intellectual by the cut of their suit or the parting in their hairdo. And as the friction between Buckley, the man who established the Conservative movement’s National Review, and Vidal, who famously wrote the gender-bending novel Myra Breckenridge, get closer and closer to the bone, so do the ratings peak and blossom, as the project intends. But more than the message or the medium, this becomes a life versus art versus entertainment exercise, which spirals into the value system that is the nerve centre of a western society.
Featuring a fantastic set, which allows the narrative to happen in four different areas at once, and to overlap and conjoin with other narratives, the work is devastatingly flawless. It’s about the elegant brutality of men who like to have their intellectual egos stroked, as they like to flaunt their quick-wittedness with barbs that push limit after limit. Until the moment of truth, that is, where boundaries get broken and polite but clever wit turns rogue.
It’s an intellectual play of the finest quality and will keep you mesmerised on everything from the truth to history as we know it, to the sparkly cynicism that whips through the room, singeing the air with its spite and malice, its political sense of one-upmanship and polite mannerisms as it hits home.
Beautifully cast, superbly choreographed, blending contrivance with dialogue, it’s a work that echoes a number of its own truths, staged as it is for one type of audience, filmed as it is for another. Best of Enemies is a slice of history which has nuggets in it for you, who watch the news and you, who have opinions about the value of one politician jockeying over another. Bring a clear head and an open mind.
- Best of Enemies is directed by Jeremy Herrin and performed by Deborah Alli, Emilio Doorgasingh, Clare Foster, Tom Godwin, David Harewood, John Hodgkinson, Syrus Lowe, Kevin McMonagle, Sam Otto, Zachary Quinto, with an ensemble comprising David Boyle, Lincoln Conway, Vivienne Ekwulugo, Janine Hogarth and Saaj Raja. Written by James Graham, it features creative input by Bunny Christie (set), Jack Knowles (lighting), Shelley Maxwell (choreography), Tom Gibbons (sound) and Sian Harris (costumes). Originally performed at the Noel Coward Theatre in London, it is being broadcast by National Theatre Live in South Africa at Cinema Nouveau in Rosebank and Brooklyn Commercial Ster Kinekor, in Pretoria, until 28 October 2023.