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

This House – NTLive – review

Film fails to convey thrill of live theatre

★★★

Production shot of Phil Daniels in the National Theatre production of This House
Phil Daniels in This House. Photo: Johan Persson

I’ve watched quite a few recordings of theatre shows since the Lockdown and the more I see the less sure I am that that they’re a good advertisement for theatre. By which I mean, what works on stage often doesn’t work on film.

At the heart of live performance, there’s a conspiracy between audience and actor. We all know we’re watching someone acting out a story. So we accept the artificiality, the theatricality if you like. That unnaturalness is exposed when we are forced to stand back from it and view it through the medium of film. So when the actors in This House race up and down the stage, it looks exciting in the flesh but on screen it just looks a bit silly. When actors speak loudly on stage, it’s riveting, on screen it’s a bit shouty.

Films and television dramas are more artificial than theatre but they do everything they can to make it seem like it’s real- the photographically detailed set, the convincing makeup and so on.

What we want in theatre is simply to watch those actors telling us that story with their words and actions. Film wants to show us flashbacks and dreams. It has to provide something to keep the eye interested: you can’t have a detective go question somebody without that person carrying on with their gardening or car repair.

Prodcution shot from the National Theatre production of This house by James Graham
Photo: Johan Persson

We theatregoers want to use our imagination, just as we did when our parents or teacher told us a story as a child. We conjure up images of, as Shakespeare said, ‘the cloud-capp’d tow’rs, the gorgeous palaces’- not to mention pitched battles and shipwrecks. We don’t need imagination for film and TV drama because they do it for us. In This House, as the Labour Whips desperately try to get MPs back to give them the votes they need, a silhouette of a helicopter appears at the back of the stage, to great comic effect. That’s all we need. In a film, we would expect a real chopper.

Theatre is on a human scale (with the odd exception where the director insists that the production will be better for using video screens). We may like the odd spectacle but only because we can really appreciate a barricade built on a stage in front of our eyes. Generally, we like engaging with people who are not small and removed from us on a TV screen or larger than life in the cinema but people who are the same size as us, alive in front of us. For that reason,  recorded theatre works best when following one character close up, like Fleabag or Sea Wall, or a small scale play dominated by one person like Cyprus Avenue.

Thrilling production from Jeremy Herrin and Rae Smith

When watching a live performance, our brains and eyes are remarkably good at seeing detail, even from a distance. On TV, we either view the whole set and miss the detail or the camera hones in on our behalf and creates its notion of what we should see. In theatre, we may be nudged by the script or the direction but we still make the choice to look at the person talking or the one listening or a detail of the set. Rae Smith’s set for This House is brilliant. She uses a traverse stage with green seats on either side creating both the sense of gladiatorial combat and the close intimacy of parliamentary politics. Not so great when you’re not one of the people sitting on one side looking at the other side.

So, no, I didn’t think the NTLive recording conveyed the quality of This House. It’s a superb piece of theatre deserving four or even five stars, reduced to maybe three at the most. What saves it is the wonderful script by James Graham and the great way it’s acted.

This House tells the story of the time in the 1970s when the Labour government was hanging on with small or nonexistent majorities. The play may be about politics which you might think boring but it is actually thrilling as the Labour whips tried to find the MPs’ votes to keep the government going and the Conservative whips tried to bring it down. And it’s funny,  as when they drag in a dying member to vote.

Production photo of Charles Edwards in the National Theatre production of This House
Charles Edwards in This House. Photo: Johan Persson

It’s also a very good explanation of how parliament works- and sometimes doesn’t work- and an advertisement for respect and compromise at a time when extreme positions are in danger of bringing down democracy.

Among many fine performances in Jeremy Herrin’s production at the National Theatre, I would pick out Charles Edwards and Reece Dinsdale as the ruthless but mutually respectful deputy whips, Phil Daniels as the conspiratorial cockney Chief Whip and Lauren O’Neill as the newcomer who grows in confidence and stature as the years go by.

I would definitely advise you to give it a watch, despite all my caveats, but I am glad I originally saw This House live on stage.

This House is streaming on the YouTube channel National Theatre At Home until 3 June 2020.

Click here to watch the review of This House on YouTube

Copenhagen – Chichester Festival Theatre

Copenhagen by Michael Frayn at the Minerva is rich in possibilities

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Click here for the YouTube review of Copenhagen in Chichester on One Minute Theatre Reviews

Production shot from michael Frayn's Copenhagen at Chichester Festival Theatre showing Paul Jesson, Patricia Hodge and Charles Edwards
Paul Jesson, Patricia Hodge and Charles Edwards in Copenhagen by Michael Frayn at Minerva Theatre. Photo: Conrad Blakemore

So what is Copenhagen about? Ostensibly it’s about what happened at a mysterious meeting that took place in the Danish capital during World War Two between two of the great quantum theorists- Heisenberg, he of the Uncertainty Principle, and Bohr, who united the two main theories of quantum mechanics. Yes, but what’s it really about?

On the face of it, the play is about three dead people, ghosts if you like- Heisenberg, Bohr and Bohr’s wife- trying to work out between them what happened back in 1942. They keep going over the same ground with different results, and reveal all sorts of interesting things along the way. Appropriately to a play involving Quantum Theory, there are possibilities, probabilities and, above all, uncertainty. In fact the fluid time and colliding dialogue of Michael Frayn‘s play and Michael Blakemore’s bare production which makes the characters seem like protons in the nucleu of an atom give us insights into Quantum Theory.

So here are my thoughts on the possibilities, probabilities and uncertainty of what I saw.

Looking at it one way, the play is about history and science and how the two interlink. Quantum Theory led to nuclear fission which led to the atomic bomb- and a race between Germany and the Allies to create it.

Looking at it another way, it’s about the moral dilemma felt by a theoretical scientist wanting to help win a war but working on a weapon of mass destruction to achieve that victory. Did the meeting affect the outcome of the war?

Then again, the play is about how time and memory work: what happened is always gone and replaced by an unreliable memory influenced by subsequent events. And the impossibility of seeing yourself and your life objectively because you are the centre of your universe.

 

 

Production shot from Copenhagen at CFT
Copenhagen by Michael Frayn at CFT’s Minerva Theatre. Photo: Conrad Blakemore

 

You could say the play is about how people and relationships affect history and science. How jealousy, rivalry, fear, ambition and personal tragedy play their part. Charles Edwards as Heisenberg gives us a moving account of a life under the Nazis. Patricia Hodge and Paul Jesson are his equal in acting power.

You might come out thinking mainly about how impressive it is that an intelligent well written drama can put across all the above.

To go back to quantum theory, Copenhagen could be about how the act of observation changes what’s being observed. My experience might have been different on a different night but when I observed it, I thought Copenhagen at the Minerva Theatre deserved five stars.

Copenhagen is at the Minerva Theatre until 22 September 2018

This is my review of Copenhagen on YouTube