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Best of Enemies Review: ‘There’s never a dull moment or a wasted word’

Simon Button writes that Zachary Quinto and David Harewood are no doubt to appear on "every end-of-year awards shortlist."

By Simon Button

David Harewood and Zachary Quinto in Best of Enemies
David Harewood and Zachary Quinto in Best of Enemies (Image: Johan Persson)

There’s something truly thrilling when top-of-their-game actors go at each other tooth and nail, hammer and tongs, and any other metaphor that suggests exertion and aggression. David Harewood and Zachary Quinto do all that and more in the ferociously funny and blisteringly biting Best of Enemies.

They play, respectively, conservative commentator William F. Buckley Jr (Harewood) and liberal writer Gore Vidal (Quinto), who were brought together by the desperate-for-ratings ABC network to duke it out on telly during the Democratic national conventions in 1968 America.

In James Graham’s retelling Buckley, a family man with staunch principles, specialises in lofty proclamations that seem to come from thin air whilst Vidal, an unapologetic queer trailblazer, deals in button-pushing bitchery backed up with thorough research.

David Harewood and Zachary Quinto in Best of Enemies
David Harewood and Zachary Quinto in Best of Enemies (Image: Johan Persson)

Their broadcasted debates are played out on a set that is framed like an old-fashioned TV screen with a control room above them and projections that reveal plenty of sweat as their duels become more and more heated. The dialogue here is mostly verbatim and Harewood and Quinto revel in the wordplay, like intellectual gladiators ready to fight to the death.

Casting a person of colour to play Buckley, who was white, could be seen simply as laudable colour-blind casting but I think it’s more than that. With Harewood in the role, we’re more inclined to give a man who Vidal denounces as sexist, racist, and homophobic the time of day, rather than writing him off from the start as a pompous white patrician.

David Harewood in Best of Enemies
David Harewood in Best of Enemies (Image: Johan Persson)

Quinto’s Vidal is a firecracker who deems himself handsome and talented and revels in being called a show-off. He’s quick with a quippy put-down (when Buckley says “I’m almost through” his retort is a snide “Yes, in every sense”) and he’s spoiling for a fight.

Away from the cameras, in scenes that Graham has imagined to fill in the backstories, Gore is the life and soul of parties attended by the likes of William Baldwin and Andy Warhol, and Quinto makes him a mesmerising egomaniac who reserves his tender side for his longtime partner (their relationship is an open one) and current young lover.

Zachary Quinto in Best of Enemies
Zachary Quinto in Best of Enemies (Image: Johan Persson)

Buckley, meanwhile, is a whiskey drinker who thinks champagne is “the attention seeker of drinks” – a nice contrast to the fizz-swilling Vidal in a play that’s full of them. Parties, dinners, and political rallies are offset by the assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King and protests against the Vietnam War.

There’s red, white, and blue everywhere in the set design, lighting, and newsreel footage whilst discord rages around politicians and the well-to-do. And director Jeremy Herrin marshals it all with remarkable deftness. There’s never a dull moment or a wasted word and he elicits from his leading men powerhouse performances that will surely see them on every end-of-year awards shortlist.

Rating: 5/5

Best of Enemies is at the Noël Coward Theatre, London, until 18 February. Get tickets here.