No Boxing Day visit to a traditional pantomime for my daughter and I, but a trip to a play at the theatre. Opera and ballet sadly out of our price range, West End musicals not my thing, but a good, wordy, political drama ‘Best of Enemies’ – perfect. And, for my daughter? Well, as an avid watcher of ‘Homeland’ seeing David Harewood on stage together with Zachary Quinto (Spock!!!!) it was almost too much.
‘Best of Enemies’ is a play by James Graham that focusses on a pivotal moment for the relationship between TV news and political discourse. In 1968 the American TV company ABC was trailing its competitors, NBC and CBS, with its audience numbers, particularly during the coverage of the political parties’ national conventions. A fall in audiences meant less advertising revenue and the TV executives needed a new offer to compete. The men at ABC came up with the idea for a series of debates between two people, one from either side of the political divide.
During the first part of the play we see how both William F. Buckley (David Harewood), from the Republican side of US politics and Gore Vidal (Zachary Quinto), from the Democratic side were approached and engaged to discuss the political issues of the day in a series of live debates. The play truly gets into its stride as it presents how, over the course of these live debates, the tone of the discussions descended and as the debates became shouting matches so the TV audience numbers rose. And, we, in the theatre, witness the beginnings of the sensationalised political discourse we have today.
The performances by the main characters were both electric and engaging. The production was slick and energetic weaving original news footage from significant events of 1968 with realtime video close-ups of Harewood and Quinto as they verbally sparred on stage.
I am just about old enough to remember 1968. I remember the news of the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr and Bobby Kennedy that so shocked my parents. However, although later as an adult I knew of Gore Vidal, I’d never heard of William F. Buckley or the 1968 debates. And, as for my daughter, she had even less knowledge of the historical period aside from the music and the fashions of the era.
Did we need to know much about the protagonists of the play, or about the American politics of the era, or even about the wider political climate of 1968? Probably not. The play gripped its present-day diverse audience and there were even moments of amusement and laughter despite the serious subject matter. And, at the end of the evening, as the audience left the theatre, I caught snippets of sober conversations recognising the significance of the 1968 debates and our current, ‘politics as spectacle’ so beloved by the likes of Trump, Johnson and others.
‘Best of Enemies’ is well worth a ticket and is playing at the Noel Coward Theatre, St Martin’s Lane, London until 18 February 2023.