Best Of Enemies at Young Vic – review

The best new play I’ve seen this year

★★★★★

David Harewood and Charles Edwards in Best Of Enemies by James Graham at the Young Vic in London.
David Harewood and Charles Edwards in Best Of Enemies at the Young Vic. Photo (c): Wasi Daniju

Best Of Enemies at the Young Vic is the best new play I’ve seen this year. James Graham’s writing is vivid, funny, and shocking. There are towring performances by the two leads David Harewood and Charles Edwards. And the production directed by Jeremy Herrin with a set by Bunny Christie is perfect.

Given the subject matter – the 1968 presidential election and in particular some televised debates between the influential conservative thinker William F Buckley and the liberal writer Gore Vidal – you might think Best Of Enemies is not for you, but you’d almost certainly be wrong. I know it sounds boring but believe me, in the hands of writer James Graham and director Jeremy Herrin, it becomes electrifying theatre.

Best Of Enemies may tell us a lot about the polarised society we live in today, but it does so in the form of a gripping entertainment that takes us inside the heads of two protagonists, narcissistic to the point of recklessness.

The play begins with the immediate aftermath of one of the later debates. There is anger and shock at language that has been used, although at that point we don’t know what’s been said or how it’s come to this. We then go back and see that the story began with ABC TV News, in a race for ratings, deciding to have well known intellectuals talking about the Presidential conventions, at which the Republican and Democratic candidates are elected.

This is about the corrupting influence of TV and there are three big screens high up at the back of the stage to remind what viewers are seeing, as well as showing us the studio control area. We see how the participants both take part because they see it as a way of promoting themselves. We then see over a series of debates how the confrontational format generates more heat than light.

We and they realise that how they come across is more important than what they say. Buckley’s wife Pat says: “That’s all this is. Who do I like the most?’ At the end, Vidal prophesies that this means that one day a candidate could get elected because he was more likeable rather than having the best policies. Don’t we know it?

Okay, that’s the bones of it but what James Graham has done is flesh that skeleton with bits of verbatim speech from the debates and lots of fictional dialogue that brings to life the two protagonists.

Electrifying performances by David Harewood and Charles Edwards

The two leads charge the production with electricity. David Harewood plays William F Buckley. You might be surprised that a Black actor is playing a right-winger whose whiteness was part of who he was, but a good actor inhabits the role. In this case, the role is of a man not comfortable in his own skin. Mr Harewood relishes the part, not only the external mannerisms, tics and lip licking and other nervous affectations, but also the inner person- the loneliness of the outsider, the devoted husband, the foundation of his beliefs, and the desperation to win. He does a remarkable job of making us feel sympathy for someone who could so easily be the villain, because of his racism and homophobia. When the first debates go badly for him under an onslaught from Vidal, I actually felt sorry for him. Then we see him planning to raise his game.

Charles Edwards conveys the smooth charm, razor wit, the insufferable superiority, obsession with power, and the vulnerability of Vidal. He was a patrician and his sense of superiority, while insufferable, helps him dominate those early debates. Then Buckley prepares better and starts to score points, and as Vidal squirms, so do we.

They are both intellectuals and they’re both narcissists. They want to win the debate so they can be more influential in the world of politics. Each of them is delighted when they’re recognised by leading politicians. They’re not portrayed as bad people, their extreme views seem to be more like an academic exercise than something from the heart, but they do have hearts and it’s their pride, and above all their desire to win that drives them from civilised conversation to conflict to playground name calling. Both seek out each other’s weaknesses, initially of their arguments but eventually personal ones, and you find yourself not wanting to look, as their feelings are exposed.

They live in ivory towers, not what most of the electorate would recognise as the real world. Obsessed by their personal dislike of each other, they don’t even anticipate the effect of their clashes on the world of politics, which is moving from compromise to polarisation. In the real world things fall apart.

Justina Kehinde in Best Of Enemies

We are shown something of what’s going on in that real world of 1968: Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King are assassinated; an extreme feminist shoots Andy Warhol; there are protests about the Vietnam War. Looking back, we see that this was the beginning of the end of consensus politics and the start of polarisation: Left v right, young v old, plus conflicts of gender, race and sexuality. And on the other hand, there’s the so-called silent majority which Presidential candidate Richard Nixon appealed to. So tempers are rising, creating a sense of a pressure cooker.

The set itself is a small open stage surrounded on three sides by audience, turning the protagonists into gladiators in an arena.

All the other actors are first class. Among them, there’s Clare Foster as Buckley’s cheerful wife Patricia, Syrus Lowe as the angry but expressive James Baldwin and John Hodgkinson who plays the chair of the debates, revelling in the viewing figures but out of control of the wild horse he is riding. It’s only a cast of ten but they take on many characters, all well delineated, so you might think there were twice as many actors. It seems like every one of the characters has a contribution to make and every line has something to say.

Under the direction of Jeremy Herrin, this production zings along. As with the Wolf Hall trilogy or James Graham’s This House, which he also directed, he uses movement to add a physical excitement to the dialogue. I like the way he and James Graham make politics exciting. Because politicians shape our country and it’s a crying shame we find them boring or see them reduced to personalities.

Why were they the ‘best’ of enemies? They needed one another and they’re really quite similar.

Best Of Enemies is performing at the Young Vic until 22 January 2022.  Performances will be streamed live on 20, 21, 22 January, 7.30pm, and 22 January 2.30pm GMT. Tickets from youngvic.org

Paul received a complimentary review ticket from the producers.

Click here to watch this review on YouTube

Ralph Fiennes in Beat The Devil – review

Ralph Fiennes mouths David Hare’s righteous anger at Boris Johnson


★★★★

Production shot of Ralph Fiennes in David Hare's play Beat The Devil at the Bridge Theatre in London
Ralph Fiennes in Beat The Devil. Photo: Manuel Harlan

After five months of being deprived of live theatre, I say all hail the Bridge Theatre for being, as far I’m aware, the first to put on an indoor show. How wonderful I thought not only to see Ralph Fiennes in the flesh but also to get away from the pandemic. Except David Hare’s new play Beat The Devil is about the pandemic.

Sir David caught the virus just before the lockdown and was seriously ill with it and, in this monologue through the medium of Ralph Fiennes, he talks about the progress of his illness and in parallel the actions of the government. As the virus went mad so did the government, he says, or words to that effect.

We’re all too familiar with the failings of our leaders in this crisis but it didn’t harm to be reminded of them. And he does tell both stories with righteous anger and a pleasing wit. On the personal level, there’s his puzzled response to finding that his signature dish tastes so much like sewage that he feels he must have made a  mistake in the cooking. Describing the government as ‘mediocre’, he sys, ‘does violence to the word’. Of course, if you feel the government has handled this crisis well or at least no worse than any other government would have done, I realise the polemic may lose some of its impact but it’s still fun.

It greatly helps that the lines trip off Ralph Fiennes‘ tongue so naturally, just as if he is having a conversation with us, albeit a conversation fueled by anger and bemusement. Bunny Christie’s set is admirably simple but effective, being appropriately a desk placed centre stage, which gives Mr Fiennes as the writer something to move round or sit at, under the direction of the incomparable Nicholas Hyntner.

David Hare has been writing plays for fifty years and by comparison with his best- Plenty, Skylight, Pravda, the Absence Of War– this 50 minute memoir may seem slight. It is fair to say that many elements of the public story of the pandemic will be familiar to anyone who follows the news but Sir David’s ability as a writer is undiminished. He can still coin a phrase: ‘it’s a sort of dirty bomb thrown into the body’, or be wryly detached in his descriptions of his illness thereby enabling us to see for ourselves the horror. For that reasons, it’s all the more startling when he lets out his pent up anger. ‘I don’t have survivor’s guilt, I have survivor’s rage,’ he says.

His concludes that what we need is ‘truth’. It seems incredibly potent in its simplicity.

Naturally because he was isolated during his illness, there’s no room for the renewed sense of community that many of us found during lockdown but there is a touching moment of love when he describes how his wife selflessly lay on him to keep him warm.

Photo of Ralph Fiennes facing the audience at the Bridge Theatre at the end of a peformance of David Hare's Beat The Devil
Ralph Fiennes at the Bridge Theatre. Photo: Manuel Harlan

If anyone doubted the need for the Bridge’s precautions, the vivid description of the disease would surely change their mind. Talking of which, I understand that you might still be hesitant to go to an indoor performance but let me tell you, the safety measures taken by the Bridge Theatre were exemplary- from the controlled entrance to the thermal imaging to the one way system, to having to wear a face mask throughout the visit, to the spaced out seats. I felt totally safe. What was interesting was the way the spacing had been managed. The less than one third capacity audience still produced the atmosphere of a much fuller house.

I hope that, in giving this show four stars, I’m not just intoxicated by finally seeing a live performance.  I think not. The proof is, I would happily see it again.

Click here to watch the review on YouTube

Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle

Take a chance on this love story with Anne-Marie Duff & Kenneth Cranham

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Click here to see my review of Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle on the YouTube channel One Minute Theatre Reviews

Anne-Marie Duff & Kenneth Cranham in Heisenberg The Uncertainty Principle by Simon Stephens at Wyndhams Theatre London
Anne-Marie Duff & Kenneth Cranham in Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle

I predict you’ll like Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle but whether you do or not depends on so many factors. An evening at the theatre is unpredictable, like the relationship that’s the subject of Simon Stephens’ new play.

Don’t let the title of put you off. It isn’t about quantum mechanics or science generally, it’s a charming love story, albeit an unlikely one.

The title does hint that it’s not a stereotypical romantic comedy designed to tug at our heartstrings. It’s more of a study of how two apparently incompatible people- a wild forty-something woman and a buttoned-up old man- start by thinking they want one thing to achieve contentment but end up finding something else is what they needed.

Anne-Marie Duff & Kenneth Cranham are masterful

The characters are complex and contradictory. The woman even contradicts herself in the same sentence. She is over the top with confidence when she feels in control, falls apart when she doesn’t. The man is outwardly calm but he cries without warning.

As in a good mystery story (or the science of quantum mechanics), you sense that much lies between the lines of the script. It is crammed with clues and hints about their characters and why they might be attracted. As the man says of great music, it exists in ‘the spaces between the notes’.

This calls for masterful, nuanced acting and that’s what we get from Anne-Marie Duff and Kenneth Cranham. Listening to them is like hearing a violin and cello recital.

Nodding to Heisenberg’s theories about atomic particles, the play shows that we can only ever think we know people and we can’t predict how they will behave. There’s a lot to savour in noticing how your first impression of the characters- her unbearably loud, him boringly quiet- changes as you get to know them and see them react to each other. Add to which, there is pathos in the losses that have shaped their lives, plus a lot of humour, particularly about getting old.

Marianne Elliott’s brilliant production

Bunny Christie’s fabulous minimalist white set reinforces the sense in Marianne Elliott’s brilliant production that we are observing a scientific experiment. It has no scenery or props to distract us. With each scene, the colour of Paule Constable’s lighting changes and the proscenium arch aperture alters from square to letterbox to oblong to almost crushing the woman at one point. This all affects our perception of what’s happening.

The play and the way it is presented inevitably make one think about the art of theatre. Heisenberg, in a different theory, talks about scientific experiments and the way atomic particles behave differently when observed. As an audience, we are observers. You may react differently to the person sitting next to you. Your enjoyment will be affected by that night’s audience (as will the performance). Like atomic particles, these two people’s fictional lives are changed unpredictably by each other but also by the audience’s observation of them in a play.

Simon Stephens has wrapped an unexpected love story around a fascinating look at the way theatre itself is an unpredictable experience.

Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle is at Wyndhams Theatre, London, until 6 January 2018. Click here for tickets for Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle.

Below is the review from One Minute Theatre Reviews YouTube channel

People Places And Things starring Denise Gough

Good Play With A Great Performance From Denise Gough

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People Places And Things by Duncan Macmillan reviewed by Paul Seven Lewis of One Minute Theatre Reviews
People Places And Things at the National Theatre. Photo: Johan Persson

Sometimes a good play can be made great by a great actor. Sometimes a great play makes a good actor seem great.

Take the Headlong / National Theatre production of People Places And Things which is about to embark on a national tour. Duncan Macmillan‘s play is about Emma, an addict in rehab. She tells us plausible stories about her life and the people around her until a pattern emerges in which we discover she is deceiving everyone including herself. Is her name even Emma?

Although the play talks about an addict’s relationship with the world, it didn’t seem to me to give her that universal quality that makes a great play. On the other hand, it cleverly shows us what it’s like to be an addict and thus creates a great character. Other roles and group scenes don’t have the same depth, the latter even drag a little.

Powerful Agonising Performance

Denise Gough grasped this complex character with both hands and turned in one of the all-time great performances. It was all the more powerful and agonising because she underplayed what could easily have been an over-the-top portrayal.

Add Jeremy Herrin‘s direction, Bunny Christie‘s appropriately clinical set and an unnerving use of lighting and sound, and I felt I was inside Emma’s head.

The production is the same as the London one so it will be interesting to see what Lisa Dwyer Hogg, who takes over as Emma for the tour, makes of the part. I can imagine many great actors in the future choosing this play to showcase their talent.

Other roles and the group scenes in People Places And Things don’t have the same depth, the latter even drag a little.

There are many moments of humour alongside the desperation and self deception. When she’s off her head, Emma is comic as well as tragic. Her resistance to the group sessions and twelve steps to recovery are as funny as they are sad.

Between 22 September and 25 November 2017 the tour of People Places And Things will visit Manchester, Oxford, Bath, Bristol, Exeter, Southampton, Liverpool and Cambridge. More information and booking details on the National Theatre website.

See my video review on my YouTube channel One Minute Theatre Reviews https://youtu.be/pTVFJHYVrQk
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