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theatre

Best of Enemies – Young Vic

James Graham debates the idea of debates themselves, in a highly watchable show that shows Graham continuing to question the value of his own work

David Harewood and Charles Edwards in Best of Enemies

‘There is an implicit conflict of interest, between that which is highly viewable, and that which is highly illuminating.’

So says Gore Vidal, in the closing moments of Best of Enemies, James Graham’s new play for the Young Vic. It is a wry note on which to end a drama which has been, in one sense, ‘highly viewable’ for the last two and a half hours; Best of Enemies is a rip-roaring romp of a play – filled with big characters, weighty debates delivered lightly, and regular finely crafted laughs. It remains highly typical of Graham’s earlier drama, with sprawling touches reminiscent of Lucy Prebble’s 2019 play A Very Expensive Poison, as he turns his attention to a series of debates broadcast by ABC in 1968 between conservative William F. Buckley and liberal Gore Vidal. This, Graham contends, marked the start of televised political punditry and drove a trend for culture wars which continues to poison discourse.

Yet, compared to Graham’s earlier plays and television films, there seems to be something more urgent at work in Best of Enemies, which is simultaneously bravura, self-assured, even swaggering, and searchingly uncertain about its own purpose. Interviewed on The Play Podcast, Graham has said that he thinks that he is writing about ‘anxieties’ rather than themes – and while the play is animated by many political anxieties (over freedoms of speech, assembly and protest, and the idea of a divided nation), I wondered if Best of Enemies evinced an anxiety of Graham’s own – questioning the value, social and ethical, of his own writing.

Gore Vidal’s critique (or at least the critique ventriloquised by Graham through Vidal) of ‘highly viewable’ content is phrased somewhat ambiguously. The ‘viewable’ could be that which is easy to access – certainly relevant given a major theme of Graham’s play is the effect of television on politics and people’s lives. It is viewable by dint of being in your front room, and now on your phone. But ‘highly viewable’ could also be a (tad anachronistic) synonym for watchable – ease of access not only facilitated by the mass media platform, but by the sheer entertainment value. Thus, Graham has Vidal appeal to an almost traditionalist view– that things which are worthy are often difficult, that learning is the product of stoic labour, and that mass appeal and accessibility are to be regarded with suspicion. It almost recalls moral panics over television giving you square eyes and smartphones robbing us of our attention spans.

Best of Enemies, in some senses, is ‘highly viewable’. Of course, it is currently only available in one place (though will be streamed later in January) and for a short space of time (truncated further by Covid cancellations). But it is thoroughly engaging, witty and compelling. One reading of the end of the play – which imagines a surprisingly civil debate between Buckley and Vidal, trying for once not to win but to understand each other, without a television audience – is that Graham is extolling the value of debate as a process, not a spectacle. Perhaps this is a vindication of theatre – gathering people in a room to witness an empathetic, considered conversation in which they are participating, yet also somehow not present in. Yet Graham could be indicting himself; is his work just adding to the noise, simplifying complex issues into accessible morsels and staging political debate as a mass-market pantomime?

Clare Foster and Tom Godwin in Best of Enemies

It is hard to escape the conclusion that debate, as presented in Best of Enemies, is flawed to the point of futility. Winning the debate is not the same as winning an argument – indeed, debating two opposing ideas lends both an implicit structural equivalence. Though one side might win on a particular day, better rhetoric or delivery might be all that stands in the way of the opposite result, debate occluding the ideas’ innate moral value (or lack thereof). Yet is theatre the better alternative to debate, or is it (at least sometimes) guilty of the same failings?

I would be inclined to suggest that Graham is leaning towards the latter, Best of Enemies continuing and encapsulating a question animating his recent work. Graham’s 2017 play Quiz – which he later turned into a 2020 miniseries for ITV – seemed to me to be a shocking critique of both the justice system and theatre itself, masked by the strangely idiosyncratic middle England story of the Ingrams, who may (or may not) have cheated on the quiz show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?. The television series shares the essential format, but without the play’s garnish of immersive dramaturgy. The first half presents the case for the prosecution – a meticulously built argument that demonstrates motive, opportunity and intent through evidence. At the end, the audience are asked to vote on a keypad – a ’50:50’ between guilty and not guilty. Most voted guilty. Yet remarkably, the second half disassembles the superficially watertight case for the prosecution. The prior evidence was selective; the channel’s own motives (and financial worries) are scrutinised as the Ingram’s were. It was not enough to acquit the Ingrams in 2003. Yet with greater hindsight, Graham’s skilful defence splits the audience down the middle. We are left uncertain that the prosecution has proved their guilt, and whether the Ingrams had cheated at all.

Graham’s work, particularly Quiz and Brexit: The Uncivil War, can be interpreted as meditating on truth, and that is certainly one contemporary anxiety animating his work. Best of Enemies too presents the slippery moral storytelling of Buckley met with facts and statistics from Vidal. Yet for me, there is a bigger anxiety in Graham’s writing, concerning justice: how can justice be done when perspective can change so much? Quiz exposes the dangers of an adversarial justice system in its onstage dramaturgy, while the variance of juries is shown in the statistics projected on screen at the end of the play – of the different voting responses of audiences from recent performances. To indict this justice system is also to criticise debate itself – as well as the dialectical model theatre is so often based on (including Graham’s plays). This dialectical thinking particularly drove his 2017 play Labour of Love – and arguably reduced the party’s complex history to a dichotomy between centrists (especially Blairites) being electable though somewhat compromised, and radicals (Corbynites) being valiantly idealistic, yet unpragmatic and unlikely ever to win.

Generally, Graham’s writing falls into one (or both) of two standard shapes: dialectic, debate drama (This House, Coalition, Brexit, Labour of Love, Best of Enemies) and anti-hero narrative (Brexit again, in some ways Coalition, and Ink). Best of Enemies questions the latter category too, walking a careful line between making Buckley dramatically compelling, while not condoning his views (many of which would be generally considered outright bigotry today). Most of his charm on stage is down to David Harewood’s charisma, rather than making him outright sympathetic, but there is a curious and surely deliberate imbalance in the drama. Vidal is surrounded by a panoply of interesting figures, such as James Baldwin, Aretha Franklin and Andy Warhol – subjects of biopics of their own. (Warhol will be profiled in the Young Vic’s forthcoming show The Collaboration, which examines his work with Jean-Michel Basquiat). By contrast, Buckley has relatively anonymous acquaintances, like his wife Patricia, and his publisher. Graham almost completely resists the opportunity to let Buckley get the upper hand, partly due to the real history in which Vidal ‘won’ most of the debates according to viewers, but also to avoid letting Buckley’s unpleasant, even offensive arguments come across with any rhetoric of reasonableness. Harewood is compelling throughout, but it’s rare that he gets to make a proper point. In Act 2, he briefly gets the upper hand in one debate – but this is due to thrust and parry work, playing on Vidal’s own ego – rather than the strength of his own argument about the war in Vietnam.

In further self-analysis, Graham seems to be mounting a subtle critique of his own even-handedness in previous work, such as Ink’s sympathy-for-the-devil approach to Rupert Murdoch and the founding of The Sun newspaper. His portrayal of Dominic Cummings in Brexit: The Uncivil War was in some ways prescient of his later importance as a government adviser, but – portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch as an unavoidably Sherlock-esque anti-hero – arguably helped reinforce dubious characteristics of strategic genius in the public consciousness. Buckley here is no such lovable rogue.

Justina Kehinde in Best of Enemies

Charles Edwards accords Vidal a pervasive air of ease; his life is not so much hedonic but leisurely. Though arguing against bigotry, he rarely seems particularly affected by it – insulated largely by his wealth and platform. Yet this does not seem especially deliberate – part of the play’s frustrating trend to flatten ideas and experiences, especially of peripheral characters. James Baldwin appears as a character and in archive footage (having debated Buckley at the Cambridge Union in 1965), yet he exists largely as a sage voice providing counsel to Vidal when he needs it – moral support rather than moral authority. His presence does raise one of the drama’s most interesting questions: ‘Did you really win?’. Debates are Trojan horses. Controlling mechanisms of power – and post-Nixon (and particularly post-Reagan) power has particularly been capital – is what really matters and lets people actually win.

The play’s weaknesses, however, lie not in ethical failings as much as its underdeveloped attribution of a sense of relevance to the play’s events. Graham has said that he ‘weaponizes’ old stories to speak to the present day – and he is acutely aware that it is not a neutral, documentary act he is engaged in. Yet though everything in Best of Enemies seems included on the rationale that it has relevance, similarity to, or was even the origin of our current world, the links are sometimes strained.

Graham’s vision of 1968 rarely feels like the site of true ideological struggle. (Nor do the debates, but that is partly the point.) The year saw protests erupting across the western world – against the war in Vietnam, as well as vast strikes in France that May. Jon Ronson’s recent podcast on the ‘culture wars’ (a term porous and dangling, which Ronson avoids defining other than through example) located origin of such social conflicts at a roughly similar time. I am happy to accept Graham’s proposition that he is telling an origin story (for both punditry and a specific form of social debate), yet Jeremy Herrin’s production gestures too much to an atmosphere of generalised chaos. There is little specific political charge. This state of pandemonium is conveyed through placards, marching protestors and bursts of archive footage. The war in Vietnam is mentioned, but rarely engaged with. Buckley and Vidal avoid discussing the political motivations for the conflict and Communism – so central to American foreign policy at the time – remains largely implicit. Graham is more interested in the fact that people are unhappy, than what they are unhappy about, as he is diagnosing a formal similarity between contemporary and historical modes of debate, direct action and protest – rather than suggesting an exact political comparison. Yet the unfortunate effect of this complex, compelling idea is that the drama becomes a little flat, the stakes hard to grasp.

Every notable event from 1968 is sucked into this overarching narrative of discontent – even the shooting of Andy Warhol. While the assassination of Martin Luther King suits Best of Enemies’s overarching narrative, I struggle to see how Warhol’s shooting by radical feminist Valerie Solanas fits – especially when Warhol is aligned so firmly with Vidal’s left-liberal coterie. Warhol is aloof to the point of simplicity – wishing everyone could just love each other and enjoy art purely aesthetically. (In many ways his cause is anathema to others’ interests in social justice, but the play does little with this.) Solanas was, until then, best known for her notorious SCUM manifesto (the name retrospectively turned into an acronym for the ‘Society for Cutting Up Men’) which she sold in radical bookshops for a dollar to women, and to men for two dollars. During a period of mental illness and convinced Warhol was going to steal her manuscript, she shot Warhol before turning herself in to the police.

‘The shooting became wrapped up in a larger narrative on gun violence when Senator Robert F. Kennedy was shot the next day’, writes Bonnie Wertheim in a 2020 retrospective obituary of Solanas in The New York Times. While the events may have felt connected at the time, Graham’s play makes little editorial intervention, despite its hindsight. Instead, everything is pulled towards this central clash of ideas between the forward-thinking liberals (not that Warhol, as he is presented here, thinks very much at all) and the surly conservatives. Combined with Vietnam protests, it feels like a historical checklist is being ticked off, adding to the rising volume of background noise like the accretive ‘I can’t take it anymore’ pressure cooker history of Billy Joel’s ‘We Didn’t Start the Fire’. This makes for a vague comparison to the present – which definitely has its degree of chaos and confusion, but over very different issues. There are subtle comparisons available – such as the sudden withdrawal Afghanistan last year – between the present and the past, but a combination of Coronavirus and public apathy means that very different issues are causing protests. In contrast to the present, Buckley’s right-wing views have a self-styled underdog quality, arguing that progressive causes have been winning in America since FDR.

Charles Edwards and Sam Otto in Best of Enemies

Where Best of Enemies seems poised to succeed most is in critiquing a politics obsessed with form, delivery and most of all civility over genuine substance. Yet the play seems unwilling to take a view – faltering between a sense that everything would be better if everyone just calmed down, to admiring the protestors’ conviction. Buckley’s advocacy of measured conversation in the play aligns this kind of debating discourse with the right-wing and the establishment (of Cambridge debating societies, for example), but I yearned for more sustained pressure on these ideas.

None of this is to say that Best of Enemies is not a good, often great show. Herrin’s production perfectly judges the balance between the comic and the serious, the performances are consistently strong, and Bunny Christie’s set design makes the audience feel part of the debating arena – close to the action. The show is frequently hilarious too; Graham’s talent for the acerbic bon-mot remains one of his great strengths. In Labour of Love, he described the Labour party’s rose symbol as a metaphor (‘looks pretty and is full of pricks’). In Quiz, he suggested that the pub quiz is such an enduring fixture because it contains British people’s favour things: ‘alcohol, and being right’. Here, he crafts many more memorable lines – competing with Gore Vidal’s own after-dinner wit – though the original authorship of each particular laugh is never entirely clear on stage.

Best of Enemies is quite a searching work, yearning for something better than currently exists, and questioning the ethical value of Graham’s own drama. It certainly succeeds in entertaining, but whether it is truly ethical is less certain. The writing is often sharp and scalpel-like – but (to stretch the metaphor) it rarely seems to know what operation it was performing. Graham’s plays generally end with a gesture towards the audience – letting them decide who is right and wrong (most literally seen in his participatory conclusion to Quiz). Here, though it is hard to argue that Graham is impartial between Buckley and Vidal (being fair to both, but politically aligned like his audience far more with the latter), the question is about the value of debates themselves. Implicitly, we are to judge them for ourselves – in their many guises, including on stage. Best of Enemies seems like the work of a dramatist engaged in self-reflection and I look forward to what Graham does next though, if this recent trend is as conscious and deliberate as it appears.

Best of Enemies

Written by James Graham, Directed by Jeremy Herrin, Design by Bunny Christie, Lighting Design by Paule Constable, Sound Design by Tom Gibbons, Video Design by Luke Halls, Music by Benjamin Kwasi Burrell, Movement Direction by Shelley Maxwell, Starring David Harewood, Charles Edwards, John Hodgkinson, Tom Godwin, Emilio Doorgasingh, Syrus Lowe, Clare Foster, Justina Kehinde, Kevin McMonagle, Sam Otto
Reviewed 4th January 2022

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