Ding-dong merrily on high! Here’s the West End transfer of James Graham’s riveting dramatisation of the televised debates between Gore Vidal and William F Buckley Jr. The verbal slug-outs between those ornately articulate exponents of post-war liberalism and conservatism increasingly gripped America during the Republican and Democratic Party conventions, in the run-up to the presidential election, in riot-torn 1968. And do so now, thousands of miles away and half a lifetime later.
This is welcome intellectual stimulation to counter festive frivolity, and, helping to justify some steep ticket prices, Zachary Quinto – best-known for playing Spock in three Star Trek films – makes a spellbinding UK stage debut as the debonair Vidal. Quinto proves to the effete manner born in the sedentary gladiatorial bouts he undergoes with David Harewood’s Buckley. Harewood – racially cross-cast – remains a cool, commanding force to be reckoned with but (dare I say it) Quinto, in the role Charles Edwards took at the Young Vic, reincarnates his subject’s twinkling mischief to perfection.
You could josh that Quinto is bringing Hollywood tinsel to Jeremy Herrin’s snappily paced production. But in seriousness, isn’t the thesis of Graham’s piece – indebted to a 2015 documentary film of the same name – that the entertainment value of their head-to-heads, which transformed network ABC’s position, turned televised political debate into a species of pantomime? It was Buckley, deploying the word “queer” mid-outburst as a vicious slur, who shattered the civilised veneer and wound up cast as the villain. But the whole process at work, the pair realise, was calculated to stoke division.
“It was a turning point, a shift in our culture in how we talked to one another,” Aretha Franklin, no less, tells us at the start of the evening. A further transfer to New York must surely be on the cards, and it will be interesting to see whether the commentariat there, more steeped in US televisual history, buys into Graham’s argument that this episode marked the birth pangs of today’s culture wars. But it seems eminently plausible on this side of the pond – and Graham’s track record as the most astute geek on the theatrical block (a hit writer on TV, too) means you trust him to have done his homework.
If there’s a failing, it’s that almost too much research gets stuffed in, the action channel-surfing between pop-up primers, archive footage, cameos (wow, there’s Warhol!), angsty strategising and more. Filleting the 11 debates – conducted first in Miami, then Chicago, both taking in speculation about presidential hopefuls – the script doesn’t dig especially deep into the men’s backstories.
What it does do, with the physical self-composure of both lead actors a major plus, is impart an adrenal sense of two heavyweights under intensifying pressure, their battle of wits and egos compounded by vying visions for America. In the outbreaks of swirling ensemble activity and movement around them, you get enjoyable blasts of energy and nostalgia, but also a visceral, all-too-current sense of a country so in the grip of social and ideological upheaval that it’s on the brink of a total breakdown.
Until Feb 18. Tickets: 0344 482 5151; noelcowardtheatre.co.uk