Character above all
And so it was with nostalgic tendencies that I braced against the rising floodwaters of Covent Garden last night to see the world premiere of Frost/Nixon at the Donmar Warehouse. And whilst a simple retelling of one of the most famous moments in American history would have sufficed, Peter Morgan delivered so much more. Frost/Nixon is a thriller-like, edge of your seat recreation of how in 1977 the only man to ever resign from the U.S. Presidency, played out his guilt to the legendary British journalist, David Frost, before the largest-ever TV audience for a news interview.
On the surface, the play appears to posit Frost (played by Michael Sheen) and Nixon (played by Frank Langella) as conventional contenders in a boxing ring. In one corner, the supposed lightweight but flailing British talk show host: in the other, the austere remnants of power unflaggingly personified. And like any good fight, the challenger is hooked, jabbed and belted (here in the form of three failed interviews) before delivering the final knock out punch.
If not already obvious that Morgan is not interested in just a history on legs production, the plot is infused with interpretation. Morgan offers the audience a viewpoint of ostensible common ground between interviewer and interviewee: Nixon was disgraced, looking to rehabilitate himself; and Frost had lost his network talk show in the US and was looking to resurrect his career. A symbiotic relationship defined the two: both reputations hinged on the show's success. (Think Tom Cruise and any hapless talking head keen to interview him).
Morgan refrains from drawing axiomatic contemporary parallels. However, you don't have to be a Guardian reading, Cameron disparaging, Clinton defender to spot similarities between the Nixon White House attacks on the American media's alleged bias and those made under Bush. And herein my nostalgic appetite was satisfied. It's easy to say, and it often is said, that had Nixon come clean about Watergate in the beginning, when he had no direct responsibility, the affair would quickly have blown over and he would have survived.
But out from under the gripping power of Frost/Nixon you wonder if maybe, just maybe, in this instance things did happen for a (right) reason. Unlike Frost whose charismatic, self assurance lent itself to the camera, Nixon never trusted nor fully understood television. Think Clinton vs. Bush, but invert powers of intellect. A heroic stretch of the imagination, I realise. Yet, rather akin to picturing how Nixon, a solitary, introverted persona, would have survived in an era increasingly dominated by the boob tube. So maybe in the end it was Nixon's prescience, rather than reluctance, that told him to bow out.
And that is part of Frost/Nixon's hypnotising power, it appeals to our sense of nostalgia for seemingly 'simpler' considerations. Well, that and, for me, the writing of my own happy ending.
Book now, before media frenzy kicks off in full:
If I were a betting (wo)man, I would predict a West End transfer followed by Broadway so get in while you can. For best value ring the day of the performance for standing seats at £7.50. Running time is 155 minutes and the theatre is small so it's one of the best, unobstructed views in the house.
Until 7th Oct
Donmar Warehouse, 41 Earlham Street, WC2
Tel 0870 060 6624, www.donmar-warehouse.com
£15-£29, £7.50 standing