As far as the critics were concerned, to paraphrase David Frost, it was “Hello, good evening and a very big welcome” to Frost/Nixon, which had its world premiere on Monday (21 August 2006, previews from 10 August) at the Donmar Warehouse.
Screenwriter Peter Morgan has already explored power-broking in high places in The Deal, his TV drama about the Blair-Brown relationship. In his first stage play, he revisits the political and media world of 1977 when talk-show host David Frost’s historic television clash with disgraced American president Richard Nixon drew the largest audience ever for a news interview.
With Nixon desperate to claw back some semblance of credibility after the Watergate scandal and Frost hoping to make the biggest career move of his life, the scene is set for an extraordinary confrontation, ending in Nixon’s public admission of his crimes after years of lies and subterfuge.
First night critics agreed that Morgan’s script, Michael Grandage’s production and central performances by Michael Sheen (as Frost) and Frank Langella (Nixon) all combine to turn trial by television into a gripping theatrical experience.
Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (4 stars) – “Michael Sheen, who played Tony Blair in The Deal, pulls off another astonishing feat of recognisable characterisation without resorting to mere mimicry. He has the Frost twang, his whiplash way of finishing a sentence, and a slightly protruding lower lip that conveys what it is to be a good listener. And he springs to the kill like a sleek matador. Frank Langella’s stately progress to the status of a tragic actor of imposing bulk was implied in George Clooney’s recent film Good Night, and Good Luck, in which he played a CBS television executive assailed by an outbreak of journalistic morality over the McCarthy hearings. With his booming echo of a voice and shifting, watery-eyed gaze, Langella finds so much that is reasonable and sympathetic in Nixon that it almost becomes hard to believe he was guilty of anything at all: brilliant, and brilliantly, excitingly directed, by Michael Grandage. Another palpable hit for the Donmar.”
Benedict Nightingale in The Times (4 stars) – “As often with docudrama, you’re not sure how far Frost/Nixon is to be trusted, but there can surely be no doubting the authenticity and power of its climax…. With Michael Sheen finding serious steel behind the laid-back Frost exterior, and Frank Langella suddenly transformed into his mottled, sweating victim, this more than justifies the longish build-up.”
Michael Billington in the Guardian (4 stars) ¬- “The magnificent central performances offer an intriguing contrast. Michael Sheen exactly captures Frost's verbal tics and mannerisms while suggesting a nervousness behind the self-assurance: there's a moment when he almost puts a hand on Nixon's shoulder before hastily withdrawing it. Meanwhile Frank Langella, although not looking much like Nixon, by acting skill convinces you this is a solitary man aching for the activity of power. I felt I had not only got a glimpse into the characters but became nostalgic for an era when television itself had a theatrical weight and power.”
Paul Taylor in the Independent – “The play and production are tactically saving themselves for the climactic showdown when, emboldened by damning new evidence unearthed from the White House transcripts by a zealous member of his team, Frost, an eerily affable and ineffable Michael Sheen, breaks through Nixon's defences. Then you get the best of both worlds: the immediacy of theatre and the camera moving in on the ex-President's stricken, self-loathing face.”
Nicholas De Jongh in the Evening Standard (4 stars) – “Langella’s amazing performance, one which nobody interested in great acting should miss, catches and registers those final moments when Nixon is left disoriented, confused and incoherent. Langella, who exudes authority as naturally as if born with it, has more than something of the man’s throaty, throttled voice, his strange vulnerability and cunning. He makes the final fall of this wicked president as abject, pathetic and sudden as Icarus’ or as awful as Lucifer’s: life drains out of him like air from a tyre.”
Simon Edge in the Daily Express – “The real power of Michael Grandage’s production is at the end, when Nixon is cornered into a discussion of his wrongdoings. Here the bank of TVs at the back of the stage comes into its own. Nixon seems composed as he confesses. But when blown up on the screen, he is red-faced, sweaty and bug-eyed. As the narrator puts it, that snapshot reveals the reductive power of a TV close-up. It is perfectly done and perfectly exonerates the play’s focus on the media portrayal of Watergate.”
Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph - “Hello, good evening and welcome to a terrific new play that is as thought-provoking as it is gripping and entertaining. What's more, like all good history, it illuminates the present while examining the past…. It's typical of the Donmar's savvy under Michael Grandage that it should have bagged this hot writer's first stage play…. Morgan tells a complex story with admirable clarity, and Grandage directs a marvellously alert and compelling production, in which even the smallest roles come alive, and which memorably nails the moment when politics and showbiz became inextricably intertwined.”
- by Roger Foss