Gore Vidal’s The Best Man is a political slugfest that goes the distance. In one corner we have former Secretary of State William Russell (Martin Shaw), in the other Senator Joseph Cantwell (Jeff Fahey). Refereeing the bout – whose prize is the U.S. presidential nomination – is elderly, ailing ex-President Arthur Hockstader (Jack Shepherd), a cynic who clearly relishes the cut-and-thrust to which every such nomination is prone.
Russell, a sharply intelligent Harvard graduate with an aura of culture and sophistication about him, would appear to be – on paper at any rate – a shoe-in for the job. But his character is not without his blemishes. He’s a part-time philanderer locked into a shaky marriage with a long-suffering, marginalised, grin-and-bear-it wife (Glynis Barber).
Cantwell, on the other hand, is an uncultivated, self-made, bigoted, ruthlessly ambitious, morally deficient Southerner who took on the New York mafia and won. He has a doting wife called Mabel (Honeysuckle Weeks) and on the surface is a happily married family man.
Politics, however, is a dirty game and punching below the belt par for the course. Each candidate has something damaging on the other. Cantwell is well aware that Russell’s past includes a mental breakdown, while a homosexual liaison Cantwell was once alleged to have had at a military academy has recently been brought to Russell’s attention.
While there is no doubt that Cantwell will do whatever it takes to secure the nomination, Russell’s integrity blanches at bully-boy tactics until his realistic campaign manager (Philip Cumbus) persuades him otherwise. Who is the best man – and will he win?
Vidal, a Democrat and no stranger to the American political system, having unsuccessfully stood (twice) for office, was very much in his comfort zone when he wrote The Best Man in 1960. Although 58 years is a long time in politics, not very much has changed in the race to the White House, as the play (never before staged in Britain) all too presciently recognises.
What has changed, though, is the theatre. Formulaic, well-structured Broadway plays are an endangered species today. And with TV shows such as The West Wing and House of Cards upping the ante where the machinations of power politics are concerned, contemporary audiences might find Vidal’s insider take on the genre a tad cosy. Yet there’s a great deal to enjoy in director Simon Evans’ slick, well-acted production.
Sharing many of Vidal’s urbane qualities, Russell is very much the hero of the piece and Cantwell the villain (“a Frankenstein monster,” as Russell describes him). That said, it is the latter, more colourful character who has the showier part, and Fahey makes a virtue of his vices. Shaw, on the other hand, has the harder task in making the blander Russell equally engaging and not as dry as some of his dialogue indicates. He succeeds admirably, bringing a light touch and an understated authority to the role.
In a welcome return to the West End, veteran Shepherd, as the canny, seen-it-all-before Hockstader, pilfers every scene he’s in. Even politically incorrect lines such as “women voters have no more sense than a bunch of geese” cannot detract from the flashiness of the role or the enjoyment audiences partake in it.
In terms of their material, the women are less well served. Though both the wives are underwritten, Barber subtly dispenses a veneer of loyalty and marital harmony that cannot disguise the character’s underlying unhappiness; while Weeks convincingly taps into Mabel’s vapid sexuality. But it is Maureen Lipman, as a committee woman specialising in dispensing advice to the candidates and their spouses on the best way to snatch the female vote, who makes the most with the least in her two scene-stealing appearances.
With a few prop changes, Michael Taylor’s excellent set – a hotel suite in Philadelphia - serves both the candidates.
Not a knockout but a win on points.