As an admirer of Gore Vidal’s novels, the chance to see one of his plays in the UK is rare treat. This work from 1960, following two candidates for presidential nomination, has perennial appeal (the latest Broadway revival was in 2012). As one of the 20th century’s great men of letters, maybe it’s no big surprise that Vidal could write for theatre, but he makes it seem easy, with impeccable construction, well-rounded characters, sparkling dialogue and an awesome intellect when it comes to exploring and developing ideas.
This is a touring show that director Simon Evans has refined to perfection. The production is as slick as a politician might wish for – those involved with the recent Tory conference would be green with envy (there’s no coughing here). Jeff Fahey skilfully conveys a period feel as the outsider Cantwell, a dangerous figure with “naked ambition” and a sinister southern drawl. Martin Shaw is the lead, Russell, but takes the play’s title too literally. Russell is clearly the hero, but as Vidal’s alter ego he should come across less as ‘man of the people’. Shaw isn’t waspish or imperious enough and, as a result, a good deal of humour is lost.
Both leading men are commanding and the scene of their confrontation is electric. Yet the play excites as much with its trio of strong female roles. And getting three women in a play about politics ain’t bad going. Gemma Jones steals a scene as a matriarchal figure, while Glynis Barber and Honeysuckle Weeks are great as the candidates’ wives. Seeing the power behind the potential thrones embodies the insider feel that makes for delicious moments. But Vidal has also creates believably flawed relationships that both actresses can work with. Barber is particularly strong as Russell’s estranged partner. Putting on a public show, she dismisses the conference around her, saying, “I like circuses” – but hopes of renewing the marriage show her complex motivations.
When it comes to the latest addition to the conference scene, it’s Vidal himself who is the prankster here. Given his heritage and own foray into real-life campaigning it’s an exclusive view that makes the satire truly sparkle. And also… a little sad. The play can’t hide its disappointment at politics, a resignation that gives it heart. The depressing irony is that this cynical vision often feels old-fashioned. The talk of slurs taking a campaign “beyond truth” reveal Vidal as visionary, but also somehow quaint. The unsuitability of the candidates – due to mental instability or downright stupidity – shocked in the 1960s. Oh, for those good old days.
Touring until the 28 October 2018