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November 28, 2006

On Mimicry and Creativity: Peter Morgan's Frost/Nixon at the Gielgud Theatre, London

Posted by Lincoln Allison

Peter Morgan's Frost/Nixon
directed by Michael Grandage
Gielgud Theatre, London
15th November 2006 - 3rd February 2007

Frost/Nixon is full of ironies, but it is an irony in itself, being a kind of revenge of the theatre upon its unruly grandchild, television. It's dramatic core consists of the interviews which Richard Nixon gave to David Frost in 1977 in which he finally admitted (some) culpability in the events of Watergate and effectively made his exit from public life. So there we are paying good money to see a re-enactment of events which the older among us saw in their real version for nothing. The main concern of the play is that politics has transferred its principal forum of contest onto the television screen and thereby changed its nature.

It is also ironic that Frost interviews Nixon with "chat show" incompetence, watched with seething frustration by his "liberal" producer (Jim Reston, played by Elliot Cowan) who desperately wants to "nail" the ex-president. But it may actually be the incompetence which works by making "Tricky Dicky" complacent or even sympathetic. Or it may be that Nixon wanted what is now called "closure" in any case. We are left with some nice ambiguities, not least about a friendly, "we're two of a kind", phone call late at night from Nixon to Frost which only the latter remembers. A hint of the supernatural, even, but probably only age and booze.

The problem of the play is partly shared with Frederick Forsyth's Day of the Jackal, remembering that at least the first half dozen publishers approached couldn't see the point of a thriller the end of which is known to all educated people. De Gaulle survived, Nixon was "nailed". We all know he's going to crack, but we want to see it for ourselves. And it's an interesting dilemma for an actor: what do you do when you have 100% information on the character you are playing and can study every detail of his mannerisms and reactions in a full variety of circumstances?

The two answers in this production could not be more different. Michael Sheen mimics Frost in the way that he has already mimicked Kenneth Williams (in Kenneth Williams: Fantabulosa) and Tony Blair (in The Queen, also by Peter Morgan), catching the voice and the body mannerisms. Having done that, he doesn't need a facial resemblance and, of those three, he looks most like Kenneth Williams. He can be eerily good at that kind of imitation. On the other hand, he was a pretty poor Henry V, raising suspicions that if he hasn't got a tape of Michael Parkinson talks to Harry of Monmouth to study then he doesn't know what to do. To be fair, it was a long time ago (1997) and a poor production.

Frank Langella's Nixon, on the other hand, is not like the man himself. It is a dramatic creation - shambling, rambling, cunning, sympathetic and repulsive and his relapse into public confession is a striking dramatic moment. Having said that, what everybody does when they even hear the name of Sir David Frost is to mimic him ("Hello, Good Evening and Welcome . . . ") and it may be that a creative interpretation in this case which reveals the essence or inner depths is an oxymoron. Conversely Sir Anthony Hopkins at least is one predecessor to Langella in treating Nixon as a kind of latter-day Richard III who offers each actor his own opportunity to create a sympathetic villain.

The play is done in two hours without an interval. This device maintains the pace and the tension and allows we provincials to catch the train home, though it must cost quite a lot in terms of the sale of drink and ice cream. It has plenty of good jokes and suggests interesting ideas about the nature of politics in the television age (a theme which is shared, of course, with Morgan's The Queen).

But it is a "docudrama" and I remain pretty sceptical about docudramas. Of course, Shakespeare did it in forms ranging from MacBeth (complete distortion) to Julius Caesar, which fits most of the known facts. There is more danger with contemporary events in accepting the needs of drama as a true account of events. The interviews here are presented with many sporting analogies as a contest between two men in which only one can survive. But in real life Nixon was going to spend the rest of his life at San Clemente, come what may, and Frost's career was not really on the skids at least to the extent which this account implies. Sir David has made a statement to this effect adding, with sang froid, that he fully understands the need to dramatise the situation in that way.

On the whole, I thought that Frost/Nixon was pretty good, but nowhere near as good as some critics had suggested: 7/10 or ****. Perhaps they are grateful to have anything serious on in the all-singing, all-dancing West End.

And I cannot resist a further snotty provincial remark about London theatres. Every time I end up in one of these places I remember how appalling they are: proscenium arches, flat stalls where you have to look round the head of the person in front of you, half the audience below the stage . . . When you are used to state-of-the-art like the Swan or the Courtyard in Stratford or even the ones at the University of Warwick it is depressing to be in somewhere like the Gielgud (formerly The Globe and before that Hicks). If anyone is to blame then they are long dead so there is no point in going on about it, but just don't say you live in London for the theatre!

Lincoln Allison retired from an academic career in 2004 to become a freelance writer and broadcaster. He remains Emeritus Reader in Politics at the University of Warwick and Visiting Professor in sport and leisure at the University of Brighton.

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