Frost/Nixon, Donmar Warehouse, London
Closing shots convey the drama of a TV classic
Tuesday 22 August 2006
David Frost's televised encounters with the disgraced former president, Richard Nixon, pulled in a record audience for a series of news interviews when they were aired in 1977.
Now Peter Morgan has created a shrewd, partly speculative stage play about a contest in which the British talk-show host eventually extracted an apology (if only for "mistakes" rather than crimes) from the man who had discredited the presidency and left his country in trauma through his corrupt efforts to cover up the Watergate Scandal.
Frost/Nixon, a sharp, witty and haunting production by Michael Grandage, might appear to be a somewhat paradoxical venture. Not only is it the first foray into the theatre by a writer noted for his excellent TV dramas, which include The Deal (about the troubled relationship between Blair and Brown), but television would, literally on the face of it, seem to be the ideal medium for this subject.
As Nixon, portrayed in a performance of reverberating, near-tragic depth by Frank Langella, remarks to Frost during the negotiations, "television and the close-up, they create their own set of meanings". There's no actual correlation between a perspiring upper-lip and guilt, but TV summarily enforces one.
So it is frustrating that during the early bouts, the bank of monitors above the live action gives us roughly the same long-shot perspective on the proceedings that we see on stage. Even when Frost and his team try to analyse how Nixon has been outmanoeuvring them, we can't see the duelling as it was transmitted on television.
By contrast, in a highly effective sequence, we are permitted to scrutinise in close-up Frost's own discomfiture when grilled by his CBS rival, Mike Wallace on Sixty Minutes, about the questionable ethics of giving Nixon a hefty fee.
But the play and production are tactically saving themselves for the climatic showdown when, emboldened by damning new evidence unearthed from the White House transcripts by a zealous member of his team, Frost, an eerily affable and ineffable Michael Sheen, breaks through Nixon's defences. Then you get the best of both worlds: the immediacy of theatre and the camera moving in on the ex-President's stricken, self-loathing face.
Frost/Nixon tries to establish that while the two title characters, are in many ways, decidedly dissimilar, the pair have profound underlying connections. Both are presented as desperate for rehabilitation - Frost's US show had recently been axed - and as humbly-born folk driven by the need to prove themselves.
To drive this home, Morgan even imagines that a tipsy Nixon might have phoned Frost on the eve of the final encounter in a call in which he unsettlingly identified with his adversary. If this is not credible on any level, there can be no doubt of the timeliness of a play that shows us a president who feels that, by virtue of his position, whatever he does is legal, if he deems it to be in the interest of national security. A canny, flawed, and fascinating piece.
BBC Trust agrees to axe channel from TV in favour of digital moveTV
FestivalsFive ways to avoid the portable toilets
Jurassic WorldThe results are completely brilliant
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Tunisia hotel attack: Locals form 'human shield' to protect hotel from gunman Seifeddine Rezgui
- 2 Russian officials ban yoga because it's too much like a religious cult
- 3 German ethics council calls for incest between siblings to be legalised by Government
- 4 Ginger Pride festival to take place next summer, organisers say 'time of bullying gingers is over'
- 5 Facebook rainbow profile pictures likely being tracked by social network
Glastonbury 2015: The best bits you missed from Lionel Richie and the Dalai Lama to The Libertines' secret set
Glastonbury 2015: The picture of a man crowd surfing in a wheelchair is brilliant, but it wasn't taken at Glastonbury
Fifty Shades of Grey author EL James' Twitter Q&A didn't exactly go as planned
Guillaume Tell gang-rape scene causes uproar at the Royal Opera House
Glastonbury 2015: Shocking scenes of rubbish left strewn across campsite as clean-up begins
The moment a Queen's Guard soldier lost it and drew his gun at annoying tourist
Greece crisis: IMF was pushed around by Angela Merkel and Nicholas Sarkozy – and now it is being humiliated
Greece crisis: The wider lesson is that it’s time to abandon this failed experiment in currencies
'I wish the BBC would stop calling it Islamic State' – David Cameron unleashes frustration at broadcaster
Pentagon accuses Russia of 'playing with fire' over nuclear threats towards Nato
They are neither a 'state' nor 'Islamic': Why we shouldn't call them Isis, Isil or IS