There are not many plays around right now that get to the heart of the tensions and conflicts of the political process in the way that, for example, Ink brilliantly dissects the world of print journalism. So it is very welcome to see a drama presented that is not only a European premiere, but also one that has lost none of its insight and incisive cynical commentary on American elections even in the wake of The West Wing and the outcome of the 2016 electoral cycle where reality ultimately outdid art in unexpected plot twists.
The Best Man dates from 1964 when Vidal was at the peak of his powers as a social commentator and novelist. It is the only one of his plays that has lasted, but it is a sophisticated not a journeyman work, and stuffed with reflections on his experiences near to the heart of the Kennedy Camelot voiced through a well contrasted group of political operatives gathered at a nominating convention from which only one of them can emerge victorious. It is a clash of ideologies as much as personalities, with former Secretary of State, William Russell (Martin Shaw) pitted against southern senator Joseph Cantwell (Jeff Fahey). Russell is an intellectual in politics, modelled on Adlai Stevenson; whereas Cantwell is a ruthless opportunist and populist modelled in part on Richard Nixon and partly on Bobbie Kennedy. Russell has scruples and sees shades of grey where Cantwell sees none.
It is an open, split convention and much of the action revolves around the manoeuvres by which the candidates and their staff seek to gain advantage over the other side and how far they are prepared to go in the process. Where does legitimate seeking of advantage shade into graft and criminality? The plot keeps us guessing, and the psychological twists and ploys are very plausible in political and human terms.
Martin Shaw could project his words better at times, but as the still moral centre of the drama he projects integrity and a fine grained ethical sense with aplomb. Jeff Fahey captures his character’s menace and monomania aptly while not forgetting the political savvy too. Most startling among the men is Jack Shepherd as a former President and wannabe kingmaker, another figure with a real-life model – Harry Truman. As a pragmatist gravitating between the two candidates this performance is compelling and also very funny. There is a shrewdness here about both politics and human nature, a sense of politics as both a game and a battle of ideas and ideals, that acts as a conscience for the audience. It is beautifully played.
We have a battle of the candidate’s wives too and two neatly contrasted performances from Glynis Barber and Honeysuckle Weeks, as Alice Russell and Mabel Cantwell. Barber is estranged from her husband but becomes more and more politically engaged and determined on her husband’s behalf as the play progresses; whereas Weeks is all winsome Southern charm and petty bitchiness to start with before also revealing an inner steel. Gemma Jones adds a powerful cameo as a political hostess whose own feisty intrigues belie the surface gender conservatism she espouses. The limitations, opportunities and contradictions available to political women in the 1960s are well displayed.
There is a realistic set which is switched deftly with a few decorative touches from one candidate’s hotel suite to the others. Costumes have a neat period touch and director Simon Evans keeps things moving fluently in what could be a purely static setting. All in all this is a sterling production that fully deserves to come into the West End on the strength of its overall merits and the quality of the writing.