Best of Enemies
Was so looking forward to watching this James Graham play and David Harewood; but it got COVID cancelled over Christmas. Therefore my live play turned into a livestream. However this livestream has bells on because you can be your own director and get the exclusive cut you want of the play.
For me, this is the first time I’ve found a livestream version less than being at a physical play. The issue with a James Graham play is that there’s always lots going on; movement and levels of staging, not to mention media, are a big part of it. I had to switch to multi-screen as each version meant I was missing something — usually hearing a voice, not seeing who was speaking. Camera 1 seemed to be having issues — keen to show us on stage bums and knees!!!!
So multi-screen solved the problem as Aretha Franklin and James Baldwin commented from the steps and stage, and I could see all the David Harewood! Charles Edwards was a very opinionated, slick Gore Vidal tearing down society at a rate of knots, pitted against the equally intelligent and opinionated academic William F Buckley Jr.
In the 1968 political conference run up as a new Presidential election takes course, these two carried out a series of live, televised, debates or increasingly talking heads as ABC News developed it’s unconventional conventions (such as using non-experts to share their opinions, not facts!) Graham holds a mirror up to our current society and its dilemmas through the divisions of class, ethnicity, the impossibleness of the Vietnam War and political strife and street protests as well as a media shift to personality and opinion. I love the fact that James Baldwin and Aretha Franklin set the scene for us in this media world.
Gore Vidal is gay, highly educated and proud; William F Buckley Jr was perhaps more ponderous, more academic but equally considered. However using the medium of television this would become a war less or arguments than of personalities, of how the screen portrayed them to the watching masses and the psychological and verbal tactics both adopted to maintain their popularity, moving from argument to personal confrontation.
David Harewood was magnificent — maintaining several mannerisms throughout, whilst appearing natural and acting a wide range of emotions. Plus I wanted him to win — cos David Harewood! Gore Vidal was not pleasant writing shocking books — but also searching for commitment and love, revealing a more respectful and vulnerable self right at the end when their best enemy was gone. Both played the game well — David Harewood’s character reacting to Gore Vidal’s eye popping book was a masterclass in humorous reactions, Pinter pauses and timing. The play seems to end in Buckley’s rage as both resulted to very personal targeted insults — but this is a trick ending — there is reflection about being ‘best enemies’. Edwards too had considerable stage presence given he was not David Harewood(!) and also potentially playing quite an alientating personality.
A range of politics and characters were woven in — we experience Martin Luther King’s speech knowing what is coming next; Aretha Franklin singing spectacularly at a political rally which then splits the party over the way she sang the American National Anthem; the media teams who are targets during political assassinations such as a producer shot in the hand during John F Kennedy’s infamous open top car rally through the streets, or the 20 staff who were tear gassed and beaten by police trying to rid themselves of protesting students, messing up the conference meeting. It made me think of the brave journalists and reporters around the world who suffer and die to get the truth, the facts out.
Unexpectedly my favourite character was sweet Andy Warhol. While probably not so sweet in real life, here his introspection, unassumingness and lack of opinion bored everyone (whilst somehow getting famous too!) I just thought his mild manneredness sweet! We even get to go to the ‘Factory’ for a moment.
A wider theme of this play is what is media for, what is truth (is it personal politics, political parties/factions, regionalism, identity, fact conveyance or something else?) and how to disagree. Although opposed, the two only became vehemently personal, slinging around political and sexual/lifestyle insults right at the end, to remain popular and win. Interestingly Gore Vidal’s character pointed out that the camera can lie — if you don’t show the reaction on the person’s face as they’re spoken about by their opponent, then they cannot be worthy of sympathy. How much more so in our over-edited world today? Themes such as what is privilege/success and how to move a fractured and polarised society forward were also considered. Highlighted too is the fact that we’ve moved from 1–3 channels where programmes were live, and people gathered round their sets to watch and observe to portable streaming and playback service, tailored to us at our convenience, (but which can also narrow us unless we’re careful).
Here Gore Vidal seems to suggest that his best enemy enriched his life; showed him something of himself. Buckley only really shows himself in private in his love for his wife and chats with his researcher — he really only shows his emotions when Vidal disparages his war service record.
I found the online format didn’t do this show justice — I missed the movement, the way Graham makes sure his audience become part of the play and being part of it. Online did make it harder to concentrate and feel involved emotionally because most of the camera angles removed not included the watcher in the action. Though I am grateful that I got to see it at all through Best Seat in Our House programme. But I was involved enough to admire Buckley’s wife’s fantastic 60s hair! Timely analysis too of what it means to love your country….
@Pictures are author’s own from the livestream of Best of Enemies 22nd January 2022 — Young Vic production