The Best Man
Richmond Theatre, 2nd October 2017
Gore Vidal is very near the top of my list of invitees for that perfect dinner party. Winston Churchill, Karl Marx, Socrates, David Hume, John Rawls, Alfred the Great, Charlemagne and Nelson Mandela would be there too. (Note this is the politics bash – music, art, drama would follow in subsequent weeks if the caterers were free). He is the quintessential liberal who would be both horrified and amused, and not at all surprised for this is what he expected, by the America of today, as he was by the America of his lifetime.
In my humble opinion he is one of the greatest novelists of the second half of the C20. Whether it be his novels examining the nature of sexuality, The City and the Pillar, Myra Breckenridge or Myron, the fantastical satires of Messiah, Kalki or Duluth, the ancient histories such as Creation and Julian or the American histories of Burr, 1876, Lincoln, Empire, Hollywood, Washington DC and The Golden Age, there is stunning prose and visible erudition on show on every page. Best of all though these are page-turning stories, whether “fact”, fiction or a mixture of the two, with utterly believable characters. (real or imagined). Indeed I would say that the fact that his novels are overflowing with plot is one of the reasons why he is not as highly regarded as he should be – they are just not as hard work as the US cultural elite of the 1950s and 1960s would have liked. Moreover GV himself was the very antithesis of the macho artistic and literary culture of that era. He also chose to p*ss off most of the literary, artistic and political establishment in his native US with his barbed epigrams and constant feuding. Here was a man who thought he was better than everyone around him, because he was better than everyone around him.
Being the very clever fellow he was he turned his hand to screenplays as well as novels and brilliant essays, with one of his best works for film being the re-write of Ben-Hur, in which he mugged off Charlton Heston who seemingly failed to grasp the homosexual sub-text of the movie. He also wrote a handful of very fine plays which reflect the concerns of his novels. The Best Man which premiered in 1960, and was made into a film in 1964, is the most often revived I believe.
So, as you might imagine, I was very pleased when I heard about this latest production since I don’t think this has ever graced a major London (I know, technically Surrey) stage. A very strong cast has been assembled by impresario Bill Kenwright with Simon Evans entrusted with directorial duties after his smashing Arturo Ui at the Donmar (The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui at the Donmar Warehouse review ****), Alligators at the Hampstead and the exceptional trilogy of miserabilism, Bug, The Dazzle and Fool for Love, at the now defunct Found 111. The liberal, middle classes masses of Windsor, Brighton, Bath and Cambridge have had, or will have, a chance to see The Best Man before, I assume, a West End run.
And you should see it. Every word of every line is as fresh as the day GV wrote it. It is, I admit, locked in its time and place, two hotel rooms at an imagined Democratic convention in the early 1960’s, but this does not mean the issues that GV raises about political culture are not as relevant today as they were then. Simon Evans and designer Michael Taylor have very wisely stuck exactly to the period of the play’s action, and use simple devices to switch between the two rooms.
Martin Shaw, commanding as ever with his gravelly voice and still demeanour, plays Secretary of State William Russell. His rival for the nomination is Senator Joseph Cantwell, a remarkablly bullish performance from Hollywood veteran Jeff Fahey. These two legends of the screen have a bit of form together having played good guy/bad guy before in the London stage version of 12 Angry Men a few years ago. Then, as now, they are perfectly cast as dualistic political opposites. Russell is the archetypal “good’ liberal politician who believes there are limits to what can, and should be done, on the road to power. Cantwell believes nothing should get in his way and is prepared to abandon truth in order to get want he wants. As I think Russell observes in the play there is very little idealogical difference between the two (GV despaired of the lack of real choice in American politics). It is the how, not the what, that distinguishes the political complexion of these two men.
Russell is a philanderer but his wife Alice, another fine performance from Glynis Barber, is prepared to stand by him in public on the road to Democratic nomination and potentially the White House. Mabel Cantwell, played by Honeysuckle Weeks with a little too much of the Southern Belle which made a few lines difficult to follow, is a more “old-fashioned” wife. It would be nice to think that, near 60 years on, these characters would look archaically sexist. Unfortunately I am not so sure they do.
We then have the mighty Jack Shepherd as the Trumanesque Art Hockstader, the outgoing President, whose homespun country boy public persona is matched by ruthless scheming behind the scenes. You may well know Mr Shepherd as Wycliffe off the telly but he can still command a stage, and caper about, even in his late70s. Our cast is completed by Gemma Jones as Mrs Gamadge, the harridan of the Democrat ladies, Anthony Howell and Jim Creighton as respective advisors and Emma Campbell-Jones, Simon Hepworth, Ian Houghton, Craig Pinder and David Tarkenter as the press, various senators and delegates and a pair of accessories for when the fight between our two nominees gets really dirty.
I will refrain from delving into the detail of the plot: suffice to say there was enough of a twisting narrative to keep the pensioners of Richmond on the edge of their seats as we moved through the various paybacks in the second half. As I say GV couldn’t help but write great stories, and he was, after all, a Democrat insider. The characters here are not particularly well hidden proxies for the 1960 Democratic nominees, with Russell as Adlai Stevenson who GV supported, and the Cantwells as the Kennedys, who were oft the subject of GV’s barbs. GV also uses thinly veiled episodes from the life of Joseph McCarthy to inform Joe Cantwell. Subtle it ain’t.
Whilst some of the historic specificity might be lost on a contemporary GB audience the moral arguments which flow from GV’s caustic wit will not. The play is very funny (OK maybe I laughed a bit more than some) but this does not mask the seriousness of the messages about political culture. There were a couple of timing issues at the performance I attended (with the SO who has stamped her approval on the endeavour) and a brisker pace might have paid dividends in the second half of Act 1, but all in all, this is a very fine production, with a very fine cast, of a very fine play by a very fine writer.
Highly recommended. And make sure you read some GV thereafter.