The Watergate scandal of the early 1970s when President Nixon resigned from office after press revelations about his collusion in the break-in to the Democratic National Committee HQ in Washington is beginning to feel like old history.
But those of us who lived through these events and remember David Frost as the presenter of the successful TV satirical show That Was the Week that Was will also recall the Frost interview of Nixon, when this seemingly unimpeachable man lost his bluster and appeared vulnerable and confused.
Peter Morgan’s excellent play written in 2006 reconstructs the events that led up to the sequence of televised interviews, Frost’s brinkmanship in nearly bankrupting himself, his lack of support from British and American networks and the fact that a minnow was taking on a whale.
The play is set in a busy recording studio with trailing cables, TV cameras, playback screens, an interview set and a small army of support technicians. The huge central screen provides close-ups of the protagonists’ faces, particularly important when Nixon’s confidence begins to wane.
There are also key figures in the unfolding of the story like the young John Birt (Simon Bubb), later Deputy Director-General of the BBC, and Jim Reston (David Sturzaker), journalist, fierce opponent of Nixon and author of books about him. These and other supporting characters flesh out the context and provide different perspectives on the interview.
But the compelling effectiveness of the play lies in the mesmerising and subtle quality of the writing and outstanding performances by Jonathan Hyde as Nixon and Daniel Rigby as Frost.
In the two early interviews, Frost is insufficiently assertive and allows Nixon to spin out his answers at great length, giving him the opportunity to present his presidency in the best possible light. At the end of the second interview, Nixon’s Chief of Staff Jack Brennan, played by Ben Dilloway, leaps on to the stage to congratulate him and two technicians are overheard saying that they wished they’d voted for him.
At this point, Frost’s team is vituperative with anger as all they can see is that Frost is letting Nixon off the hook and, despite recently acquired damning evidence, is unable to get him to admit his complicity in the cover-up.
There is a curious scene the night before the final interview when a drunken Nixon phones Frost to reflect upon his situation. In doing so, he reveals his vulnerability.
Frost’s supreme self-confidence in proposing that he, as an insignificant and politically inexperienced TV performer, could take on a major international figure like Nixon is truly remarkable and makes his career.
Despite his bluster, devious manipulation, obfuscation and lies, Nixon comes over as a surprisingly likeable character who becomes an almost tragic figure when the truth is out. The final interview does indeed become "the trial he never had".
This is a theatrically exciting play, initially a David and Goliath confrontation, but one that reverberates with significance for present times.
Reviewer: Velda Harris