The Best Man is an intriguing political smear-fest where one politician’s private medical records are set against another’s alleged sexual predilections. The fact that the play is set in the America of 1960 explains why the latter “smear” would have had more traction then than it would in today’s rainbow-pigmented political scene but, given that, it is amazing how little American politics has changed in the intervening 58 years. There was as much fake news back then as there is now – it’s just that a particular current American politician realised that if he applied the epithet to everything then no-one would believe anything. Especially about him.
So Gore Vidal’s play has not only stood the test of time but it is also uncannily prescient in encapsulating what continues to drive American politics to this day: power. And to achieve power you need an ever-growing bag of dirty tricks to discredit your opponent and mask your own shortcomings. It’s a filthy game and, Vidal surmises, even the the cleanest politicians are going to have to get their hands soiled.
Clean politician William Russell (Martin Shaw) – loosely based on Adlai Stevenson – is seeking the presidential nomination at the Democratic Convention. Astute and highly intelligent, his drawback is that he can’t make up his mind exactly how indecisive he is. His opponent, Joseph Cantwell (Jeff Fahey), is altogether a horse of a different colour with more than a smidgen of Tricky Dicky about him. The two are on an inevitable collision course. But at least there is elder statesman – and dying – ex-president Hockstader to act as referee.
Shaw is thoughtful and measured and, actually, not all that likeable as the brooding Russell, the thinking man’s Democrat who claims the moral high ground and then let’s it slip through his increasingly grimy fingers. It’s a clever and subtle performance that displays, under all the outward intellectual nous, a brittle vulnerability that flares into angry life on occasion showing the lack of mental stability that is alluded to in his stolen medical records. Hockstader thinks he’s too clever for his own good. And as our grandmothers use to say – he’s so sharp he’ll cut himself: which he inevitably does.
In contrast, as Cantwell, Fahey gives us an uncompromising rust-belt Billy, man-of-the-people, honest-as-the-day-is-long, pull-no-punches, tell-it-how-it-is kind of power-grabber: his strap-line? Let’s Make America Gr… well, you get the picture. If Nixon hadn’t got there first it would have been Cantwell who wrote the Winners’ Guide to Screwing Your Opponent and Fahey is able to leave us aghast at the size of his cojones whilst making our skin crawl. Great performance. Shaw and Fahey knock spots off each other as characters whilst giving us a intensive double-act as performers.
And then, appearing almost apologetically from the service elevator, floating into the room like gossamer on a zephyr, is ex-president Hockstader, the referee, the appeaser, the Democratic Convention king-maker who still has power to wield and he knows it.
What a pleasure it is to sit back in the theatre and watch Jack Shepherd weave his magic on the stage. He settles over proceedings like an avuncular cumulonimbus with the odd flash of thunder-snow when the script demands. He’s been plying his trade with deft humour and riveting characterisation since the early ’sixties and is probably best known for his many TV faces (his portrayal of the harassed director in Jack Rosenthal’s “Ready When You Are, Mr. McGill”(1976) is my personal favourite) but it’s on stage that we get to appreciate his true colours, his depth of character, his withering look and his innate ability to activate every shade of emotion through his well-honed craft. He crates here a mischievous Hockstader, a backroom fixer, a time-limited Player whose going to deal his final hand for all its worth, extracting every last drop of influential juice that he can from it.
Inevitably the women here are a bit of a side show. Russell’s wife Alice – spurned but unaccountably still loyal – is played magnificently by Glynis Barber; Honeysuckle Weeks as Cantwell’s air-head arm-candy plays it suitably blonde; whilst Maureen Lipman is strangely subdued as the larger-than-life Mrs Gamadge, the Party mover and shaker.
The aide-de-camps to the respective candidates are effectively and humorously played by Dick Jensen and Don Blades whilst David Tarkenter as Sheldon Marcus infuses an unsavoury wot-me-gov? innocence to his rat-infested allegations of degenerate behaviour. The ensemble of minor characters double as the reporters pack where they are suitably shouty and frenetic and give the production an authentic rolling-news feel.
It all takes place in Designer Michael Taylor’s extravagantly furnished hotel-suite set with some effective lighting by Chris Davey. Whilst I can listen to Ray Charles’s “What I’d Say” all day I did feel that Sound Designer Ed Lewis could have used some alternative 1960’s classics rather than just repeating the same track at every scene-break. All in all, though, Simon Evans’s direction is exemplary.
One assumes it’s no accident that Vidal’s pre-curser to “The West Wing” should be revived at this particular moment in the rich panoply of American Political history: U.S. politics are rarely dull and current events are no exception. Vidal died in 2012 so, unfortunately, we can’t get what would likely to have been his particularly vitriolic take on a Trump in the House of Cards. Though The Best Man probably says it all anyway: I trust the incumbent POTUS has been invited to the show should he decide to step on these shores again.
Review by Peter Yates
Martin Shaw is William Russell, esteemed ex-Secretary of State and US presidential candidate, with something of a philandering reputation. Jeff Fahey is Joseph Cantwell, an ambitious populist newcomer, opposing Russell for the party nomination.
Running neck and neck, the only thing that might separate the candidates are endorsements from a respected Ex-President (Jack Shepherd) and party big-wig (Maureen Lipman). As the race heats up the campaign gets personal, involving Russell’s estranged wife Alice (Glynis Barber) and Cantwell’s wife Mabel (Honeysuckle Weeks). But where does compromise end and corruption begin? How far will they each go to become the most powerful man in the world? And who in the end will be proven to be “the best man”?
The play mirrors the often surprising results of campaigning, and the all-too-often unscrupulous world of politics.
The Best Man
Booking to 26th May 2018