Gore Vidal’s insightful look into the American elections is sharply written – but does it reveal anything about the world of politics that we didn’t already know?
Has politics really changed over the years or has it, as this production of Gore Vidal’s 1960 play proves, just the names involved that have changed?
Set against the backdrop of the upcoming presidential election, Secretary William Russell and Senator Joseph Cantwell prepare to battle it out for votes or in particular the endorsement of ex- President Hockstader – but just how far are either one of them prepared to go to get it? While one wants to be above reproach in his technique, the other will go to any lengths to discredit the other, leading to an ugly battle of wits.
Vidal’s sharply observant play is surprisingly humorous and offers a real insight into the real pressure faced by presidential candidates and the gruelling political system -which could in fact apply to any government in the world, a fact that Simon Evans places at the heart of his deeply engaging production that fully understands the many contradictions in politics such as truth vs lies and principles vs ambition for example.
While at times it could be said that the play’s focus is slightly lost when it occasionally reiterates the same point consistently that the message begins to wear thin – particularly when it comes down to whether William is willing to put his principles aside to smear his opponent – an argument which is over emphasised at times by other characters throughout.
But throughout his production, Simon Evans avoids making it overly serious, keeping it light and accessible for those who perhaps might not have a strong interest in politics. But he also includes nice touches such as the way in which the production switches between the perspective of Cantwell and Russell by using little touches of the election campaign in view to ensure that the production flows with ease and subtlety.
Evans has also managed to draw together a strong cast who successfully bring to life to complicated nature of the American political system as well as the difficult moral question of where compromise ends and corruption begins. Martin Shaw as the strong and upright William Russell and Jeff Fahey as the ruthless Joseph Cantwell together perfectly capture the different approaches of both characters to politics well – showcased in their different conversations with Jack Shepherd’s Ex-President Hockstader.
Meanwhile, there is also a lovely barbed performance from Maureen Lipman as the snooty Mrs Gamadge – who really deserves a bigger part in the unfolding events given the character’s bluntness but practical honesty that really cuts through the political bluster. There is also excellent support from Honeysuckle Weeks and Glynis Barber as Cantwell and Russell’s wives respectively – with one lovely scene of them together featuring some beautifully sharp and subtle insults to each other’s approaches to the campaign that is a real highlight in the way in which it is played out. But it would be fair to say that Jack Shepherd’s performance as the ex-president is a particular highlight – strong and commanding as his frustration with both candidates becomes clear
Does the play suggest anything new about the backstabbing nature of politics that audiences don’t already know? Well no, but somehow Vidal’s play definitely feels sharply relevant today thanks to the way in which Simon Evans has created this engaging and surprisingly entertaining production.
The Best Man will play at the Playhouse Theatre until the 12th May. To book tickets click here or visit: Ticketmaster.co.uk, See Tickets.com, Love Theatre.com, Theatre Tickets Direct.co.uk ,ATG Tickets and Encore Tickets.