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Unnerving Prescience: The Best Man

by on 3 October 2017

The Best Man

by Gore Vidal  

Richmond Theatre until 7th October, then on tour until 21st October

Review by Eleanor Lewis

Gore Vidal’s The Best Man was written in 1960 but its prescience is unnerving.  Monday’s press night audience at Richmond rippled with laughter and murmurs of recognition at lines or exchanges between characters created 57 years ago who were experiencing or dreading the prospect of things that have in fact come to pass in the America of 2017.

In a Philadelphia hotel, two candidates compete for the presidential nomination for a party which is never named.  One, the Harvard educated, intellectual William Russell (Martin Shaw) the other a self-made populist Joseph Cantwell (Jeff Fahey).  Courted by both of them during this power struggle is the outgoing President Hockstader (Jack Shepherd) who acts as part referee, part power broker about to bestow his endorsement on one candidate.  It is Hockstader with his failing health who personifies the beleaguered democratic process.  Jack Shepherd, in a striking performance, reels around the stage, driven almost demented by the urgency of maintaining some sanity in the proceedings and getting the right man into the job “to keep us all safe a bit longer”.


What follows is the political equivalent of the Rumble in the Jungle.  Power dangles between the two candidates.  Martin Shaw’s Russell is a contained, ethical man, resisting pressure to compromise or fight on Cantwell’s terms until he is pushed too far at which point his fury at the abandonment of principle erupts.  Jeff Fahey plays Joe Cantwell as the shrewd, unscrupulous character consumed by ambition that he clearly is, but leaves him a shred of humanity with his kindly treatment of his ruthless, relentless southern belle of a wife Mabel, ably played by Honeysuckle Weeks.  Conflict ensues as Cantwell produces a file questioning Russell’s past mental health and Russell, provided with damaging information on Cantwell’s army service, struggles with the idea of using it and therefore descending to the same level.  Both men are driven to a point of no return.


Russell’s relationship with his neglected but loyal wife, whom he now considers “a friend” is an interesting addition to the mix.  Glynis Barber portrays Alice Russell, a woman let down by her husband’s womanising, as a hugely dignified, good humoured and philosophical woman, aiming to achieve the best of outcomes.  She’s possibly the most noble of the human beings on offer, but she isn’t running for office.


Action switches between the candidates’ rooms.  The marvellous set – a hotel suite which included sitting room, bedroom, entry hall and two doors off to the corridor and an office – worked seamlessly to echo the shifts of power.  Soft furnishings and small details altered for each candidate’s room behind a large campaign banner being carried across the stage.  The press is a constant, badgering presence in the corridor at every opening of the door.

The script is strewn with quotable lines but one exchange in particular resonated more than most:

Cantwell:       I don’t understand you.

Russell:         I know you don’t.  Because you have no sense of responsibility toward anybody or anything.  That is a tragedy in a man but it is a disaster in a president.


This is a great production on several levels: it’s a great story; it’s beautifully cast (it contains two members of Team Foyle, a.k.a. Foyle’s War, for those who like to see telly stars on stage); it’s efficiently directed and well-staged, and everyone in it is convincing.  It’s strangely comforting to watch a political thriller which sets out in no uncertain terms the worst possibilities of a political power struggle and predicts the worst potential outcomes. Why this should be the case I don’t know but The Best Man is ultimately about whether decency must be sacrificed to achieve power and whilst it is questionable as to whether the best man wins in this particular power struggle, Vidal leaves his audience with a distinct sense of hope which is all we can really cling to.

Eleanor Lewis

October 2017

Photography by Geraint Lewis


From → Drama, Reviews

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