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'Best of Enemies' review – Zachary Quinto is a superb addition to this fiery, thought-provoking political drama

Marianka Swain
Marianka Swain

From political drama This House to musical Tammy Faye, James Graham has demonstrated a genius for chronicling modern history – and for joining the dots to our contemporary concerns. Best of Enemies is no exception, showing how a TV debate during the 1968 American Presidential election contributed to our current catastrophic polarisation. With Zachary Quinto joining the cast for this West End transfer (from the Young Vic), and a different but equally combustible context, Graham’s play is as compelling and thought-provoking as ever.

Those two debaters are the serious-minded, arch-conservative William F Buckley, who founded the right-wing magazine National Review, and Gore Vidal, the liberal, bisexual writer and professional provocateur. They’re brought together by the head of failing TV network ABC, which trails behind its rivals. But might a deviation from the usual neutral approach – “unconventional” coverage of the Republican and Democratic conventions – help ABC’s ratings?

Of course it does. The prize fights between Buckley and Vidal were, and are, spellbinding. America had never seen anything like it; now, sadly, squabbling talking heads are the norm, though none are as articulate or principled as this pair, who actually try to listen to one another. That’s the innate tragedy of Graham’s tale, that their sincere efforts to debate important issues had the terrible consequence of birthing completely biased networks like Fox, as opinion usurped truth and entertainment trumped news.

The casting of black actor David Harewood as Buckley is a masterstroke, since it prevents audiences from immediately writing him off – even though he hosts Enoch Powell on his show. Harwood brilliantly conveys the rather pompous, precious Buckley’s warring motivations: ambition and ego, yes, but also a genuine concern for the future of his country. He will reluctantly conquer television if it furthers his cause, whereas Vidal relishes the spotlight as much as the argument.

American actor Zachary Quinto – best known here for playing Spock in the Star Trek movies, but a Broadway veteran too – is a closer match to Vidal physically than Charles Edwards, who originated the role; he drawls Vidal’s waspish putdowns with aplomb. His version is more sardonic and steely, too, his inflammatory naughty-boy humour occasionally edging into cruel.

Most interestingly, Quinto makes it clear that Vidal’s emotional detachment is a necessary armour: rejecting the world before it can reject him, for his queerness or anything else. When he’s forced by events to abandon that detachment, it’s a genuinely shattering moment. Perhaps it’s too reductive to say that Quinto, who has spoken passionately about his own sexuality and gay rights, has more of a personal investment here. But however he arrived at this nuanced and moving performance, it makes it well worth revisiting the play.

Jeremy Herrin’s versatile ensemble gives dynamic context to what could be a rather static piece – along with archive images and videos (Bunny Christie’s design incorporates an edit suite and TV screens) which conjure a febrile 1960s, from Vietnar War protests to assassinations. Clare Foster is excellent as Buckley’s savvy spouse, as is Kevin McMonagle as ABC’s gutsy news chief Elmer Lower, and John Hodgkinson as the beleagured debate moderator and Chicago’s foul-mouthed “law and order” mayor. Deborah Alli gives powerful voice to Aretha Franklin, while Tom Godwin supplies a hilarious Andy Warhol cameo.

But the sharpest rebuke from history comes via the writer and civil rights campaigner James Baldwin, played with oratorical flair and unmistakeable moral authority by Syrus Lowe. He points out that the fact the world isn’t full of kindness and consensus might be news to some (essentially: privileged white people), but not to others – and that there’s a marked difference between debating ideas intellectually and fighting for your life.

It’s just one of several parallels summoned here between 1968 and today – along with the rise of the echo-chamber culture wars and identity politics, the generational gap widening, police brutality, discussions around immigration and the right to protest, and weighted terms like “elites” and “the silent majority”. Plus, of course, the decidedly imperfect role of television in deciding who leads us.

But if all of that sounds like awfully hard work, it’s really not. Graham, unlike our declining discourse, has no problem combining complex ideas with fiery, funny and thoroughly gripping drama.

Best of Enemies is at the Noel Coward Theatre through 18 February. Book Best of Enemies tickets on London Theatre.

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Photo credit: David Harewood and Zachary Quinto in Best of Enemies at the Noel Coward Theatre (Photo by Johan Persson)

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