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Fringe Online 2023

Low Down

James Graham longs for reconcilement. Here, robbed of one he plays off the temperaments of each debater, creating a timeless no-place where each graciously concedes points. It still leaves us with Graham’s profound insight into the nature of the monster both supremely articulate men created: an inarticulate spectacle and theatre of cruelty. A must-see on Encores.

Directed by James Herrin, Set and Costume Designer Bunny Christie, Lighting Jack Knowles, Sound Designer Tom Gibbons, Video Designer Max Spielbichler, Movement Director Shelley Maxwell, Composer Benjamin Kwasi Burrell, Casting UK Charlotte Button CDG, Casting US Jim Carnahan CBA.

Encores screenings from May 23rd tba


“He’s always to the right, I think. And almost always wrong.” New left novelist and essayist Gore Vidal sneers with fantastically drawled amusement at his prey: New Right conservative William S Buckley. Chicago, 1968. Beleaguered ABC Network is about to get half the media world’s oxygen supply in three epic TV debates.

James Graham’s Best of Enemies – now screened on NT Live from its Young Vic run directed by James Herrin – is based around Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon’s 2015 documentary on the ABC Network. It seems the moment when TV politics comes of age. But in what way? Beware of image. The encounters spawned the whole head-to-head blood-sports, polarised and hardened positions, meant NBC, CBC, BBC followed suit. Soon TV would arrive at Westminster and DC. But who imitates who?

But this is a Graham political drama. So there’s also a moment pointing to rapprochement; in a crisis when polarised extremes, history itself, denies it. So This House underscores the friendship between two opposing Whips at a pivotal shift in British history. Again, Graham ruefully points to a moral liberal victory when events turn to the right, and almost always wrong.

It’s Graham’s unique gift to underscore a hard-won humanity, an even-handedness between adversaries. That’s what makes him so absorbing over 2 hours 40 here, and different to Peter Morgan in his Frost/Nixon, or Patriots. There, the monster stalking each is clear, however equivocal the protagonist. Or Graham’s exemplar David Hare in say I’m Not Running, or Jack Thorne’s The End of History. The latter two point to the argument with ourselves, as Matthew Arnold puts it: and assume his audience is left-of-centre. Graham, even where his sympathies are clear, empathises with the right too. This goes back to Aeschylus’ Persians. It’s built to last.

Bunny Christie’s flexible set glowers with three massive TV monitors suspended like swords of Damocles over the combatants. Hotel-room beds and other props swish on and off as cocktail parties and inevitable debates morph with smoke into cloudy-left riots. Jack Knowles’ lighting as ever signals the ghost in pinpoint lighting, with Tom Gibbons’ sound bringing American lapping like a crowd eager for bloodsports menacing the corners, in Benjamin Kwasi Burrell’s deft, witty score, full of faux-menace, and real.

Also starring in This House Charles Edwards originally took Vidal, but in the transfer Zachary Quinto effortlessly assumes the patrician mocker – whose adamantine beliefs rub against David Harewood’s Buckley. Both, it’s underscored, are outsiders even to their own parties. Vidal’s literally a socialist, Buckley a Catholic in world of WASPs. To emphasise Buckley’s outsider status, Harewood’s being Black reminds us of how many Black conservatives there are, and not to make assumptions. It’s a commanding performance. Pulled from a natural dignity and waspish one-liners, this Buckley’s learning new rules through his wife Patricia (Clare Foster, a mix of deference and WASP Lady M).

The only problem this creates is when James Baldwin (Syrus Lowe, also briefly Martin Luther King) – who beat Buckley in a previous debate – steps in. A Black gay writer Baldwin can lecture Vidal from everything to politics to sexuality, what exactly Vidal’s aiming for.  Lowe delights in twitting Quinto’s Vidal with an even slinkier, more urbane self. With Buckley though the frisson fizzles.

It’s a tribute to Graham he can underscore historical paradoxes. Whilst Buckley can attempt some patrician reasonableness, Vidal’s position is even more isolated when Chicago Mayor Delsey, a right-wing Democrat (John Hodgkinson also takes a chilling Enoch Powell, rival NBC newscaster David Brinkley, and crucially the ABC debate moderator Howard K Smith), turns on the protesters Vidal supports. It’s 1968; establishments are firing back on protester around the world. Much vibrant theatre revolves round placards and protesters, a timely reminder of more recent suppressions both in the US and UK.

Emilio Doorgasingh’s lawyer William Sheehan, Chet Huntley (Brinkley’s former co-host), flesh out the Democrat tensions, the very fact that Vidal drags the debate brilliantly into territory they don’t admit. Most of all Doorgasingh revels in wise, witty and long-suffering longtime partner of Vidal Howard Austin. There’s sad wry music between him and latest lay Matt (Kevin McMonagle). From Vidal’s too-eager lover Matt, McMonagle scrolls through rival commentator Walter Cronklte, to caffeinated ass-kicking ABC president Elmer Lower and a wonderful cameo as the young Tariq Ali, proclaiming revolution.

Deborah Alli’s Aretha Franklin and others show particularly Garham’s synchronous vision, personages from different time-zones early on and a the end, commenting on the debate, mixing with the 1968 fabric. There’s fine multi-roling too from Tom Godwin apparates as right-wing political guru Frank Meyer (who influenced Reagan), Andy Warhol, Bobby Kennedy. Everyone, including ensemble actors David Boyle, Lincoln Conway, Jamie Hogarth, Saaj Paja, Mariah Louca (voiceover) augment an almost stupefying activity.

But inevitably Quinto and Harewood occupy the chairs around which Graham’s so expertly lapped the American psycho world of 1968. And well-meaning advisors and lovers continually tugging the agenda. Reminding us that 2016’s not the most dramatic thing to happen in politics, that democracy is fragile and provisional, is still turns on the protagonists. Centripetally they draw in each parry and sally, in three bouts show the tide turning against each, ending in one of Graham’s coups. Quinto’s unerring Vidalisms are engrossing: even for those who saw Vidal it’s a thrilling re-enactment. Harewood’s reinvention of Buckley renders him nobler, more reflective perhaps than the original’s more edgy, exasperated self. Too easy to score off, Graham’s recalibrated our sympathies.

Graham it might fairly be said, longs for reconcilement. Here, robbed of one (such as the historic conclusion of This House) he plays off the temperaments of each debater, creating a timeless no-place where each graciously concedes points. Perhaps it’s a catharsis, dramatically satisfying as it is. It still leaves us with Graham’s – and his sources – profound insight into the nature of the monster both supremely articulate men created: an inarticulate spectacle and theatre of cruelty. A must-see on Encores.