At a time when talk of presidential impeachment has once again become a political reality, there is no more apposite drama than a new production of Peter Morgan's Frost/Nixon. A gripping 'true story' about the most-watched TV interview in history, it portrays a strategic battle of brinksmanship between disgraced ex-President Richard Nixon, who had resigned three years earlier amid the fallout from the Watergate scandal, and unctuous British TV talk-show host David Frost. Pardoned by his successor Gerald Ford, Nixon retired into splendid seclusion in his San Clemente villa, having never publicly admitted any guilt or remorse for his criminal acts. Frost was determined to extract a confession from the disgraced statesman and the scene is set for them to go head to head in a heavyweight contest of wit, guile, and will power. Morgan conceived their encounter as a cross between a high stakes chess game and a boxing match, or as J. Hoberman's observed “a prize fight between two comeback-hungry veterans, only one of whom could win.” On paper, this match-up might have been high on amateur psychoanalysis and low on entertainment value, but Morgan is astute enough to have some fun with the idea, going on to mine the same vein in his screenplays for The Last King of Scotland, The Queen, and The Other Boleyn Girl.
Frost's series of four on-screen encounters with Nixon was not only hugely entertaining television, but also made fascinating history. Despite Nixon's deft avoidance of Frost's questions, which he parried by offering anecdotes in place of answers, they permitted audiences the rare privilege of revealing a major politician as a mere human being. As interesting as the interviews themselves were, it is the circumstances surrounding them and the outsize characters involved that Morgan focuses on. His play is glib, funny, well-paced, and expertly-structured. It creates a fascinating Nixon, comparable to Oliver Stone's under-appreciated Nixon and Robert Altman's endlessly fascinating Secret Honor. This is relatively lightweight entertainment with plenty of comic moments leading up to two or three scenes of great insight and vulnerability. Emanuel E. Garcia, brimming with dyspeptic melancholy, aggression, and self-pity, successfully captures Nixon's packaged charm, discomfort, and loneliness, while Clayton Foster nicely embodies Frost's sleazy playboy side, mixing muted good cheer with equal doses of infantilism and fear. Caroline Cushing, the attractive socialite Frost chats up on the plane and appoints his consort, is suitably slinky and glamorous.
In need of cash, Nixon hired
Hollywood celebrity agent Swifty Lazar (Martin Hunt) to
wrangle $600,000 for the interviews and staffer Colonel Jack
Brennan (Chris O'Grady) to look after his interests. Frost
lost sponsors and the US networks refused to come aboard. He
made down payments from his own funds, borrowed millions of
extra dollars, and hired two veteran journalists, Bob
Zelnick and James Reston, to do support research, adding a
sense of political weight and urgency. Reston was a
firebrand opponent of Nixon who refused to participate
unless there was a commitment to shame Nixon and get him to
admit he did wrong in Watergate and betrayed the country's
trust. The real issue was whether the smarmy Frost had the
depth to tackle the job. Initially, he let Nixon play him
with small talk (despite his claim that he was no good at
it) and temporize with lengthy, self-serving reminiscences
that blunted most of Frost's more pointed questions. For the
first three interviews, Nixon retains the upper hand, but
eventually buckles, despite a dramatic intervention by
Brennan to prevent an abject breakdown. For students of
contemporary American history, the entire process is
thrilling. Ultimately, Frost's victory seems somewhat
hollow. This is much more a tale about the impact of
television and there is great drama in how close Frost's
project came to failing. As the early encounters got under
way, he lost every sponsor and his Australian TV show. He
never managed to break back into US network television, but
was said to be worth about £20 million when he died in 2013, having ended up hosting a live current affairs program on Al Jazeera English. Although Nixon may have won three rounds out of four, his legacy will remain indelibly tainted forever. Unlike the current occupant of the White House, however, at least Nixon had the courage and decency to admit that "mistakes were made."
Director Tanya Piejus says it was a mix of admiration for the script and her personal background in media and politics that drew her to the play. “Peter Morgan has turned what is a superficially boring subject - a series of political TV interviews - into an exciting and enjoyable narrative that reveals as much about the lure of celebrity as it does about the unforgiving world of politics,” says Piejus. “What we are seeing today in the US has striking parallels with the hatred Nixon felt for the media, and with his actions in obstructing investigations.” This is the most technical pay Stagecraft had produced, with Piejus turning the set into a 1970s television studio, with the interview on stage broadcast through four screens in real time. "It's very exciting. My original vision was just to have a digital set - it was a lot more modest. We have a fantastic technical team."
Piejus also has a personal connection with the story, having worked at the BBC under John Birt (Jonathon Ensor), who produced the Frost/Nixon interviews. “The play references how organised John is and we see him as a master of strategy. While I was at the Beeb, Birt controversially restructured the organisation, winning him few friends, but arguably saving it from possible government privatisation. After he left he went on to become Tony Blair’s Strategic Advisor - so his fascination with politics at the highest levels continued.” Piejus expects the play will have particular appeal for Wellington audiences - “We’re in the thick of politics here and I expect the audiences will be just as drawn into the tension and the debate as the cast has been.”
Frost/Nixon is at the Gryphon Theatre until 9/11.
Tickets range from $20-25 and are available on i-ticket (group discounts available).
For more details see www.stagecraft.co.nz