Peter Morgan
Donmar Warehouse

Throughout Peter Morgan's debut play, the imagery used by both titular protagonists and their seconds is that of fighting.

This is wholly appropriate since in some ways, rather than the portrayal of a television retrospective interview, Frost Nixon can seem more like one of those 15 round rumbles in the jungle featuring Muhammad Ali and some hapless opponent.

The jet-setting lives of these two superstars are supported by Christopher Oram's gigantic 36 Screen TV, which backs a minimalist set with images that place the action and eventually focus in on Nixon as things go wrong.

By 1972, Richard Milhouse Nixon, appropriately played by former Dracula Frank Langella, was an outstandingly popular president of the United States of America who was pretty much guaranteed a landslide win in the following year's election.

However, as a result of a misjudgement that beggars belief, he was implicated in the Watergate scandal that eventually led to his resignation and would undoubtedly have left him the first American President to be impeached.

This powerful man, who apparently completely lacked small-talk, was left licking his wounds. Wishing to resurrect his life and career, he leapt at the opportunity to tell his side of the story on TV.

Probably the last man that he would have chosen as his opposite number was English journalist (Sir) David Frost, someone who will "pitch puff balls all night". However, money talks and Frost was willing to a mortgage himself to the hilt to get this opportunity.

He is portrayed, in a fine performance by Michael Sheen, as a super-confident, ladies' man who was still smarting over his sacking by New York station and wished to prove himself the best in the business.

Sheen uncannily looks, sounds and acts like Frost, where Langella for some reason only really resembles the President on the big screen, though he makes up for this with speech and body language of his subject.

The early scenes show the two men and their entourages preparing for the four one-and-a-half-hour long televised interviews and also capture their characters in subtle ways.

The play really takes off when they enter the ring up for what turned out to be 28 hours of discussions in twelve separate meetings.

The first three televised interviews all resulted in heavy beatings for Frost and without the assistance of professional Nixon baiter and biographer, Jim Reston, played by Elliot Cowan, even the discussion on Watergate might have exonerated the old man.

Interestingly, the interrogations on invasions of Vietnam and Cambodia could be used verbatim, were George W Bush to be offered a chance to sit opposite Sir David to discuss US foreign policy today.

However, once Frost starts to ask questions about the timing of the provision of information to Nixon, the former president instantly looks be a defeated and very old man. Thereby, he confirms Reston's early prediction that he would self-destruct. Strangely, all parties eventually agree that the cathartic release of these interviews was something that Nixon secretly yearned.

With the assistance of the ever reliable Michael Grandage, Peter Morgan has provided an assured script for his first play that by using multiple narrators never loses pace. By the denouement, this really does prove the interviews to be the trial that Nixon never had.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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