It is not often that one is so engrossed in a show that interval arrives with unwelcome suddenness. This absolutely riveting play concerns the story behind the famous 1977 interview of Richard Nixon in which the disgraced (but legally pardoned by his successor Gerald Ford) former President finally and surprisingly admitted to his culpability in the Watergate cover-up and expressed remorse over his behaviour. What made the whole incident all the more remarkable was that the interviewer who finally “cracked” Nixon was not a hard-hitting journalist or highly-reputable newscaster, but rather David Frost, a British “celebrity interviewer”, a sometime talk-show host with a playboy image and a glossy reputation for treating transitory celebrities with the same respect as heads of state. Although going into the project at a career lull and facing great skepticism and derision from the press, in the end Frost was hailed as having succeeded where so many hard-nosed journalists, committees and inquiries had failed, in getting Nixon to admit his guilt, and remarkably without his usual animosity towards the media.
What playwright Peter Morgan has done is craft a play that focuses on this famous interview as a kind of defining moment for two complex and driven men of very different temperaments, and he affords them equal attention. Although the play’s issues are inevitably more about Nixon and the legacy of his Presidency, it is the treatment of the two central characters in which the balance emerges. It is not, however, a two-hander. Somewhat unusually for a new play these days, it has a fairly large supporting cast of eight additional actors, including some small doubled roles such as make-up girls, stewardesses etc. but with the main four portraying the various advisors in Nixon and Frost’s respective corners.
To say “in their corners” is a deliberate boxing allusion, as the play quite consciously uses pugilist imagery (rendered literal in this production’s advertising), with Frost and Nixon positioned as cagey prize-fighters. Their respective teams stand poised just outside the “ring” of the interview chairs, like ferociously defensive and overeager coaches, wincing visibly at certain developments and offering frenzied pep-talks between “rounds” when breaks are called in the taping sessions.
Indeed, Morgan has chosen an especially apt metaphor in comparing the interview to a title fight, as the play details at length the long lead-up process, the wrangling over contracts, the preparation and strategising on both sides, long before the “bout” actually takes place. The fight itself is no quick knockout either, as the play concisely shows how the actual interview was compiled from many long hours of taping sessions over several days. For most of this protracted "fight" Nixon seemed to have the upper hand, with the tension and dejection mounting in Frost's camp, before reaching the dramatic "final round" in which the interviewer elicits the former President's unexpected admission.
It is all this behind-the-scenes detail about the process that is one of the most absorbing aspects of the play, especially as it reveals some fascinating motives and conflicts between the characters. Frost, for example, does not share the staunchly anti-Nixon sentiments of his researchers, and yet he has put his career and reputation on the line by personally investing a fortune towards paying Nixon’s exorbitant fee. Nixon, meanwhile, is miserable in his disgraced retirement, and desperate to restore his reputation, something his advisers lead him to believe will be an easy task against a “soft” interviewer like Frost.
Perhaps the most involving element in this is the kind of odd, fleeting relationship that develops between these two men with tremendous egos, as they stand in opposition as combatants, and yet maintain an absolute cordiality. Nixon, in particular seems to want to be friendly adversaries, projecting a degree of camaraderie towards Frost (who he sees as also being ambitious and from humble origins) that is not truly reciprocated. This is most memorably portrayed in a magnificent scene where Nixon unexpectedly telephones Frost the night before their climatic interview session on Watergate and speaks with unnerving candor towards the interviewer, as though to say “may the best man win”.
Staged with great economy by veteran director Roger Hodgman, this superb production features an excellent cast all around, yet the major plaudits must inevitably go the titular leads. John Adam as Frost is truly excellent, conjuring a man who is both slickly superficial and publicity-seeking and yet displays deeper levels of troubled integrity that make him an intriguing persona. Although not overshadowing Adam per se, the most remarkable performance is undoubtedly that of character actor Marshall Napier as Nixon. In approaching a figure so widely and mercilessly lampooned as Nixon, it must be a challenge to take on such a role without either resorting to mere mimicry or descending into caricature, especially as at several points the script gives Nixon lines designed to get a laugh. Instead, Napier’s performance is a triumph, an enormously engrossing and often intimate portrayal that manages to make this famously hated man come across with complexity, humour and absolute sincerity. Laced with tremendous nuance and unexpected pathos, Napier creates a vision of Richard Nixon that will stay with you for a long time to come.
An excellent play and a production of unmitigated quality, MTC’s Frost/Nixon is simply not to be missed.
Melbourne Theatre Company presents
by Peter Morgan
Venue: the Arts Centre Fairfax Studio
Dates: Wednesday 28 May - 5 July 2008
Performance Schedule: Mon & Tue 6.30pm (26 & 27 May 8pm), Wed 1pm & 8pm (no mat 28 May), Thu & Fri 8pm (no perf 19 Jun), Sat 4pm & 8.30pm (24 May 2 & 8pm)
Tickets: $16 - $75.30
Bookings: Ticketmaster 1300 723 038 or www.mtc.com.au