Nixon's Nixon at the Bridewell Theatre
Note: This review dates from the play's run at the 1999 Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Nixon's Nixon runs at the Bridewell in London from 7 to 25 September 1999.
Politics, famously, is pure theatre: conflict is at the heart of each, as are intrigue, expediency, hubris and humiliation. Yet American and British audiences are notoriously resistant to political theatre, keener on a bit of a love story and a bit of a larf. Nixon's Nixon is a prime example of how the power, ego, appetites and vulnerability of the politically powerful can make for rivetingly potent drama.
We see before us uncanny simulacra of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, meeting in the White House the night before Nixon's resignation: Keith Jochim as the beleaguered, bamboozled president and Tim Donoghue as the rigorous secretary of state capture the look and essence of their respective characters with remarkable skill. The meeting is a historical fact; the conversation on that night is unknown; playwright Russell Lees fills the vacuum with a muscular dialogue between two men fighting for their skins.
As the brandy level sinks, so does the formal rectitude of the encounter. The stern and intellectual Jewish immigrant is soon enacting with the sweating, buffoonish grocer's boy Great Political Moments Of The Recent Past. Here they are, playing at being Brezhnev with his bear hugs, playing at Mao with his sing-song voice. The silliness of the role-play disguises the desperation that the historical record should note Nixon's lasting achievements over the ugly mess of Watergate.
Kissinger, mouth puckered with distaste and a superior probity, appears to hold the moral high ground; it soon becomes evident that he too has his hubris, his own egotistical desire to cling to his post in the next presidency. Drunk and bellowing, they plan international mayhem to divert attention from the president's little domestic mishaps - heavy shades of Clinton - and they come to a kind, quiet sense at last, horrified at the possibilities of their position.
Nixon counts 800,005 dead: Vietnam, Chile, Kent State University. “They gave me so much power, why were they surprised when I used it?” mourns the president petulantly, a decent, inadequate man. The script swings tightly, with cool, wry intelligence and wise humour, among the absurdities and emptinesses of these obscenely powerful lives. The acting fleshes out every nuance, each shift in the dynamic: all the inherent, energising, unseemly drama of politics.