On 8 August 1974, Richard Nixon became the first American president to resigna, toppled by the Watergate scandal that had already consumed so many in his administration. It was an amazing comedown for the man who’d, less than two years earlier, been re-elected in a landslide victory - and a very bitter pill to swallow, too.
The evening before his announcement, Nixon called his Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, to a private meeting at the White House. It is in this three hours (abridged to about an hour-and-a-half without an interval) that Lees' imagination takes flight, producing a fascinating study of the psyches of two very different political animals as well as the corruptive aphrodisiac of absolute power.
Director Charles Tower succeeds in enlivening what could be a static and long-winded discussion between two old men. He's helped enormously by Tina MacHugh's superb lighting and by the virtuoso performances of his cast, both of whom capture the physical and vocal attributes of their subjects with freaky accuracy. Keith Jochim nails Nixon's marked stoop, quivering jowls and whining bluster as does Tim Donoghue with Kissinger's beetle brows and gravelled German accent. More impressively, the two also manage to excavate the sympathetic cores of their true-life doppelgangers.
In Lees' account, Nixon yearns for the encouragement to fight on, but Kissinger is more concerned with maintaining his own stewardship under successor Gerald Ford. Their fictional interchange encompasses much finger-pointing, accusations of betrayal and accounts of past glories. Nostalgic flashbacks-cum-role plays involving Mao, Brezhnev and JFK wear a little thin about two-thirds of the way through. But proceedings are dramatically reinvigorated when the men concoct a spectacular international crisis as a diversion to save their own necks and secure their place in history.
In addition to being a great yarn, Nixon's Nixon contains plenty of modern resonances to delight the politically minded – in particular, Nixon's complaints over the alleged rigging of the 1960 president election (in which he lost to Kennedy) and his impeachment dilemma find echoes in much more recent Stateside events.
Nearly three decades on, it's also interesting to note the re-evaluation of the two men in question. After Watergate, Nixon's reputation was in tatters while Kissinger's (who did stay on as Ford's Secretary of State) remained intact. Today, the late Nixon is remembered more sympathetically while many would like Kissinger tried for war crimes in Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos and Chile. Fittingly, in the play's most haunting scene, the men tally the number killed (over 800,000) on "their watch" until Nixon is forced onto his knees pleading for understanding from a remorseless and god-like Kissinger. "They gave me so much power," he cries, "how couldn't they expect me to use it?"