Could a grainy broadcast debate between two opposing US thinkers in 1968 really have turned politics into a televisual popularity contest? James Graham’s fabulous, frenetic play concerns the clash between Gore Vidal, speaking for the New Left, and William F Buckley Jr on the New Right, in the lead-up to the presidential elections. It seems to trace a line from that moment to the birth of pugilistic, celebrity-led TV politics that feeds our culture wars, fuels Twitter’s silos and has enabled the likes of Donald Trump (as it is heavily hinted) and Matt Hancock of the jungle.
In a production directed by Jeremy Herrin, some of those associations seem strained, but this is a fascinating moment captured with immense intelligence and verve.
Originally staged in 2021 at the Young Vic and based on a 2015 documentary, this West End transfer is well-oiled and still feels enveloping and immersive. The writer has made small changes to the script, which has Graham’s wide socio-political scope and sharp humour but intellectual depth, too.
Bunny Christie’s set features glass boxes and multiple screens replaying the action as well as archive footage so that the stage looks like a giant 3D TV set come to life. It is, in its effects, TV as theatre and theatre as TV. Graham’s story rewinds and flashes back and zooms in and out from pivotal speeches, which feel like television edits and montages, all clean, clever and wondrous in their execution. The whirligig of action around the debate has a bubblegum energy with cameos from Andy Warhol and Aretha Franklin.
David Harewood returns as the rightwing conservative, Buckley, and perfects the balance between swaggering intellectual and a man with a fragile ego who must be stroked by his strategist wife. Harewood’s casting as a white American who debates with James Baldwin is striking in its inversion but his views on race are not quite given the space to give this casting greater meaning. Zachary Quinto plays his opponent with more archness than Charles Edwards’ Vidal at the Young Vic; he is all dark glances and mannered drawl, a champagne leftie with a whiff of the super-villain at first but he grows into the part and owns it completely by the end.
Both actors are restricted by the highly stylised roles they play, but they never become impersonations. That is partly because the verbatim aspect of the script contains so much genuine, articulate anger and clashing ideologies that they hold us rapt. The question of whether this game-changing debate lowered or elevated the discourse is floated in the drama. Was this a slanging match or televised intellectualism? Sadly, we know the answer to that now.
At the Noël Coward theatre, London, until 18 February