Review by Daz Gale
The Young Vic are having an impressive hit rate when it comes to transfers. Their production of The Collaboration is about to open on Broadway while Oklahoma moves to the West End early next year. They are enjoying another West End transfer this week with Best Of Enemies moving to the Noel Coward Theatre for a limited run.
Best Of Enemies charts the televised debates between Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley Jr as a new television format meant to accompany the Presidential election of 1968 opened up a new frontier in American politics. Their debates are recreated verbatim while the action that took place off-screen gives opportunity for a bit of creativity and imagination, leading to more weight between some of their harsh and inflammatory remarks.
The production value on Best Of Enemies is instantly impressive thanks to its bright and striking set design from Bunny Christie. The predominantly open-plan stage becomes surprisingly versatile thanks to an ingenious use of lighting by Jack Knowles. Video footage plays a huge part in the proceedings with a mixture of live, recorded and archive footage always at play and helping to illuminate the story. The video design by Max Spielbichler is always exemplary, providing a breath-taking backdrop to the stage.
Best Of Enemies sounds every bit as marvellous as it looks in a production which trily is a feast for the senses. Sound design by Tom Gibbons creates an atmospheric setting which punctuates the mix between debate and aftermath. The use of real sound bytes from the era is an inspired touch as is the use of shots to signify some of the more traumatic incidents of the time, while a musical performance in act two is a stunning breath of fresh air in a play that regularly has your mind racing.
Jeremy Herrin’s direction creates a show that is always interesting to watch with bold choices that consistently pay off. James Graham’s writing borders on genius as per usual, taking the verbatim dialogue and fleshing out the characters with an authentically imagined way only he can. The danger of producing a play based on real dialogue could be how jarring the newly created bits could be in contrast. However, that is not a problem here with the whole thing segueing together seamlessly.
David Harewood reprises his role as William F. Buckley Jr from the Young Vic production. Effortlessly tapping into the nuances of his character, he embodies the Buckley brilliantly, with the deepest care applied to every mannerism associated with the man. Harewood provides a masterclass performance as a character whose cool and calm demeanour slowly ebbs away and leads to an explosive and iconic moment. David gets to prove why he is such a critically acclaimed actor in a differing and jaw dropping performance that shows there really is no end to his talents.
New to this production is Zachary Quinto. He may be known for his roles on screen in Star Trek, Heroes and American Horror Story but he is no stranger to the stage, having trodden the boards on Broadway multiple times. Belatedly making his West End debut, he delivers a striking performance as Gore Vidal in a portrayal so natural, you often forget you are watching an actor. Playing up to the comedic nature of the character, the serious undertones rear its head in a complicated performance Quinto plays masterfully and proves why he is such an acclaimed actor in his own right.
As two polarising characters who couldn’t stand each other, to say Harewood and Quinto display an intense chemistry on the stage may seem odd, but that is exactly what they do. Their distaste for each other is played out beautifully with the pair bringing more animosity than you are likely to see on any other West End stage. The scenes where the two are on stage together are undoubtedly the highlight of the show. While they may be creating verbatim dialogue and working off a script, they manage to do it so naturalistically it feels raw and spontaneous – such is the testament of their acting and what a formidable double act they become in Best Of Enemies.
While the action is predominantly centred about the two main characters, a supporting cast get their turn to shine impressively matching the calibre set by their two leading stars. Deborah Alli is a highlight in a multitude of roles including the late, great Aretha Franklin, even getting an opportunity to showcase her stunning vocals. Clare Foster shines as Buckley’s wife Patricia while Sam Otto is captivating as Matt. John Hodgkinson is fantastic in his attempts to moderate between the two bickering counterparts as Howard K Smith while Kevin McMonagle gets a comic turn in a dual role.
The events in the play may be over 50 years old but they still feel staggeringly relevant thanks to the discourse in recent years. Set in a divided America where protests are raging and political differences threaten to descend into violence, it is easy to draw comparisons to current events. The danger was always if a play primarily about American politics could resonate with a British audience but there is no issue there whatsoever with highly accessible albeit troubling themes that go beyond one specific country.
At its heart Best Of Enemies is a deeply intelligent and thought provoking play. The flawless writing and stylish staging is matched by that of its sensational performers, particularly its two leads David Harewood and Zachary Quinto who deserve every plaudit going for their remarkable performances in this. Effortless in its execution, Best Of Enemies may be deep rooted in its theme of hate but there is nothing but love for this incredible piece of theatre.
Best Of Enemies plays at The Noel Coward Theatre until 18th February 2023. Tickets from http://www.bestofenemiesplay.com/
Photos by Johan Persson