It drew the highest ever TV viewing figures in the history of public affairs programming when, in 1977, David Frost presented himself as the crusading hero, taking on Richard Nixon in a series of four interviews post-Watergate. Supposedly the reviled ex-president thought the British chat show host and schmoozing socialite would be an easy ride. However, since Frost had lost his regular stateside TV slot, he and his guest were both fighting to restore their battered reputations, a parallel underlined in Peter Morgan's engrossing new docudrama.
Starring Michael Sheen and Frank Langella, Frost/Nixon explores the back story to the duo's extraordinary extended tête-à-tête, including despairing rifts amongst Frost's transatlantic team. Sheen and Langella ultimately recreate Frost's surprise victory, prising a confession of guilt-raddled remorse out of the ex-president who had resigned without any show of contrition and escaped judicial incrimination.
Morgan's playwrighting debut is staged with slick minimalism by Michael Grandage. A multitude of scene changes are managed using a spotlit circle of blue carpet, chairs on wheels, and a wall of TV monitors showing footage of airports and cityscapes, then live close-ups during the reenacted interviews. Cleverly, this evokes a strong flavour of the Seventies whilst generating an exciting sense of immediacy.
I suspect the script's weak points would be more glaring if the production weren't so tight. Morgan spells out a comparison to Aeschylean tragic hubris, and rather obviously likens the interlocutors' battle for supremacy to a boxing match and bullfight, with two other characters commenting from the sidelines, pro- and anti-Nixon. Some may also find the blurring of fact and fiction dubious. I gather that one key scene - when the ex-president makes a psychologically fascinating phone call to Frost, trying to bond before the final showdown - never actually happened. That said, of course, being hazy about the borderline between truth and fibs is only fitting for the notorious case of Nixon.
The dramatic tensions are ratcheted up grippingly. The acting is sharp and subtly ambiguous too, so that you walk away still weighing up both men. Sheen's swanky Frost does seem like a caricatured joke at first but he becomes more complex, with a wild-eyed desperate ambition and perhaps more slow-burning canniness than initially meets the eye. Langella's gruff, towering Nixon is especially intriguing, almost too sympathetic but disturbingly combining an air of statesmanlike authority with a chilling casual amorality, cunning mind-games and incipient vulnerability. Worth catching.
Shakespeare's late history play, Henry VIII ought to make an interesting comparison, looking back as it does to Tudor England's political shenanigans, particularly to Cardinal Wolsey's covert machinations, dodgy trials and belated expressions of remorse. Presented by the small site-specific troupe AandBC as part of the RSC's Complete Works Festival, Gregory Thompson's period production is enticingly staged in Stratford's beautiful Holy Trinity Church (where Shakespeare is buried). Closely banked on either side of the aisle, the audience is directly addressed by the factious nobles and churchmen as if we are jurors or potential converts to their cause. Antony Byrne's burly Henry is dangerously explosive and Anthony McDonnell's squat, scarlet-caped Wolsey looks like a poisonous toadstool, but his performance proves disappointingly underpowered, psychologically out of focus and making little of his rhetoric. Corinne Jaber's stilted Katherine of Aragon needs more strong righteousness as well when she is martially ditched.
The play is patchy per se and needs far better directing than it gets here. Still, in the preview which I saw there were haunting moments with the dead processing towards the distant gilded altar, and with a delightful finale: a gloriously dignified baby Princess Elizabeth being baptised in the font and beaming softly - right on cue - when hailed as blessed.
In stark contrast, Look Back In Anger's 50th-anniversary revival by Peter Gill (for the Peter Hall Company) is set in a grey shabby bedsit with Richard Coyle's bitterly frustrated Jimmy Porter spewing verbal bile at his victimised well-born wife, Mary Stockley's placid Alison. The screwed-up misogyny of John Osborne's angry young man is still shockingly visceral, but the cross-currents of sexual attraction, with Richard Harrington and Rachael Stirling as Cliff and Helena, aren't fully explored. Gill's deliberate breaching of the fourth wall for the play's long speeches about Edwardian England - creating soliloquies accompanied by archaic echoing trumpets - exposes the play's vein of nostalgia. It foregrounds the theatrical, attention-seeking side of Jimmy too, making him a clear precursor of The Entertainer. But in the long run all this just accentuates the play's creakiness.
'Frost/Nixon' (0870 060 6624) to 7 October; 'Henry VIII' (0870 609 1110) to 2 September; 'Look Back In Anger' (01225 448844) to 2 September