[star rating=”4″] BEST OF ENEMIES. Play by James Graham. Directed by Jeremy Herrin. With David Harewood and Zackary Quinto. NT Live Screening at Cinema Nouveau.
MEGAN CHORITZ reviews
I live for these National Theatre Live screening transfusions and am so grateful we can get to see the finest British theatre almost as if we were there. Best of Enemies does lose a teeny, little bit in the screened version, however. I longed to be part of the live audience, swept up in the real time response to what was unfolding, but the screening is still a whole lot better than nothing.
Best of Enemies is a play based on a documentary based on a series of political debates between champagne leftie Gore Vidal and conservative William F. Buckley, who commentated on the pre-election Republican and Democratic conventions in 1968. The play proposes that NBC, the fourth largest TV network, wanted to come up with some new way of increasing their viewership and the plan was to pit these two divergent personalities and points of view against each other. It worked. It also changed the way politics was televised, forever, moving from fact-based reportage to talking-heads opinion television. And that is where the hard-core creepiness factor sets in.
I sat in a movie theatre, trying to forget what was being said about the Israel Gaza war, trying to forget that the USA government has been unable to elect a speaker of the house, trying to forget that South Africa is still reeling from state capture that has crippled us, and I became more and more frightened when I realised that this moment, this series of debates in 1968 was the birth of opinion over fact, of debate and one-upmanship over cooperation and bipartisanship, and the handing over of power to personality rather than expertise or intention. It was shocking.
Slick and smooth
And what better form than theatre to deliver the message. This production is slick and smooth, with a set and styling that achieves both commitment to the period and a more contemporary, fast paced ‘television’ style, accessible, immediate, and weirdly intimate at times. With boxes above the main acting space, and a sliding two chair set, bedroom, and boardroom, the notion of theatre as television and television as theatre is created. And then it is screened. It’s a lot!
Performances are key and both Harewood (Buckley) and Quinto (Vidal) are superb. They are adept at capturing the essence of these two real life personalities, adopting the voice and mannerisms of real people, and then making them their own. It’s a challenge and they are both extraordinary. Harewood has the added task of being a black actor playing a white man, and it is interesting, unsettling and almost hyper satirical at times. The supporting cast are uniformly good at playing a variety of American characters, from James Baldwin and Aretha Franklin to the television network bosses, and the wife of Buckley and lovers of Vidal.
This is theatre that challenges – politically, socially, intellectually. It is theatre that provokes and puts across a strong point of view, and it left me very unsettled, uncomfortable, and quite bleak. Politics is a monster, let out of its box, and Trump and his friends all over the world are run wild, with everybody talking and trying to get ratings. It does feel a little like it’s all over bar the shouting. Imagine. Theatre can make us see this. Let it be a warning.
What: Best of Enemies
Where and when: 21 October 2023 at 5.30pm, 22 October 2023 at 2.30pm, and 25 and 26 October 2023 at 5.30pm – Rosebank Nouveau in Johannesburg, Ster-Kinekor Brooklyn in Pretoria, Ster-Kinekor V&A Waterfront in Cape Town and Ster-Kinekor Gateway in Umhlanga