Verbal spats are the Oxford Union’s bread and butter. Audiences expect to see blood on the carpet. And James Fennemore and Josie Mitchell’s staging of Peter Morgan’s titanic 1977 Frost/Nixon TV interviews did not disappoint. Set 5 years after the Watergate scandal, and 3 years after Nixon’s resignation to avoid public humiliation, Morgan gives us ‘the trial Nixon never had.’
400 million people around the world watched Nixon’s resignation speech live. David Frost (Ed Barr-Sim), eponymous British talk show host on three continents, senses a transformative career opportunity which could propel him into the stratosphere of political interrogators. He is prepared to stake everything: his financial security, his reputation, his future. Ed Barr-Sim perfectly captures Frost’s playboy charm, reckless optimism, and steely ambition.
Wily political operator, Richard Nixon (a lowering gravel-voiced Aleksandr Cvetkovic) recognizes a lucrative opportunity (he is paid $600,000 and 20% of the revenue by Frost, $200,000 from Frost’s personal cheque book). His energetic literary agent ‘Swifty’ Lazar (Cameron Cook) suggests it will boost sales of his memoirs. Most important of all, by telling his side of the story to the widest possible audience, Nixon can use the power of television to rehabilitate his reputation. Exiled in his beach side house La Casa Pacifica, in San Clemente, California, he dreams of a political come-back.
He is so wrong. Nixon’s loyal Chief of Staff, Jack Brennan (Frederick Bowerman) assures Nixon that Frost can do no more than ‘pitch puff balls at you.’ It is, as liberal academic Jim Reston (Johnny Purkiss) warns the audience at the outset, a tale of hubris.
Or a series of dismal encounters between a gadfly and a badger, in which the badger does all the wheeling . To the increasing despair of Frost’s dedicated team: LWT’s earnest John Birt (Nick Williams), Washington insider Bob Zelnick (Ben Currie) and zealous Reston, Frost fails to derail Nixon’s self-serving agenda. Instead of slaying the dragon, Nixon is, according to Reston ‘like a dead man coming back to life.’
Morgan’s dramatic masterstroke is imagined, but proves the high point of the play: it is only in a late-night, drunken phone call to Frost’s hotel suite, three days before the last interview, that Nixon reveals that he and Frost they share a common motivation to prove themselves against the ‘high-ups’. In this final encounter: ‘We’re going to make these motherfuckers choke’.
Both men stand on the edge of professional annihilation. Only one man slopes back to the wilderness.
Producer Ksenia Harwood’s wonderful production harnesses the sonorous energy of the Debating Chamber with the exhuberant, joyous live music of Tony Huelin and his band.
Apart from more styling among the female leads (even sex-kitten Caroline Cushing looks a little too rustic for Frost’s sophisticated entourage), and a burbling sound track which was at times distracting and distorted, this was an evening of triumph for student drama – when politics met showbusiness. A cautionary tale for future politicans and playboys everywhere!