It’s commonplace nowadays to talk about “trial by television” when some equivocating politician is given a little light grilling by Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight. But what happened in 1977, as the cameras rolled at Richard Nixon’s beachside villa three years after Nixon had resigned as US president, was a truly unprecedented, historic confrontation.
The inquisitorial perpetrator was David Frost. It’s the great strength of Peter Morgan’s riveting new play that he presents Frost as much of a suitable case for investigation as Nixon himself. As really happened, the first three interviews are a cat and mouse game, with the opponents feeling each other out as if in a boxing contest.
Before the final showdown, where Frost lands his punches and Nixon crumbles to defeat, acknowledging the Watergate misdemeanours for which his successor Gerald Ford had granted him an unconditional pardon, Morgan interpolates a speculative telephone conversation. Nixon, increasingly fascinated by his interviewer, suggests that both men are victims of condescension, outsiders who battled against the odds.
They are like Richard and Richmond in their tents on the eve of the Battle of Bosworth. The Shakespearean dimension has been struck before in long-forgotten plays about American politics – the Off-Broadway Macbird, for instance, with Lady Bird Johnson as a glowering Lady Macbeth of the Oval Office, or David Edgar’s post-Watergate Dick Deterred, finding parallels at the court of Richard Nixon, with Democratic candidates cast as the murdered princes in the Tower.
Both those plays were written in verse, whereas Morgan sticks to incisive, revelatory prose. He compresses the interviews into a compelling drama, much as he made a coherent plot of the alleged policy of power-sharing in his television play The Deal, an account of a momentous Islington dinner meeting between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.
Here, Frost and Nixon each have a team of seconds, and the encounter is preceded and followed by manoeuvres between agents, producers and political advisers. One of Frost’s accomplices was the television mogul John Birt, whose real-life copy sat discreetly among the first night audience. Nixon died in 1994, buried with full honours, but I gather Frost himself has attended a preview and approved the play.
There’s nothing cheap or gratuitous in either title portrayal. 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.
- Michael Coveney