Peter Morgan, author of BAFTA-winning TV drama The Deal, has already proved he has a talent for portraying a battle of wits between worthy adversaries; now he’s done it again, with Frost/Nixon, a play that imagines the build-up to one of the most watched interviews in television history – David Frost’s 1977 face-to-face with disgraced US President Richard Nixon. Caroline Bishop had a ringside seat at the Donmar Warehouse to watch the fight…
Morgan’s play is structured in such a way – with no interval to break the tension – that you know from the outset that a battle has begun and will be played out to its compelling denouement. Beginning with Richard Nixon’s resignation speech in 1974, following two years of investigations into his involvement in the cover-up of the Watergate break-in, the play sets in motion the events which will, three years later, result in the President admitting on television that he was in the wrong.
In those three years we are privy to the interview preparations of both opponents. In the blue corner, we have British playboy interviewer Frost, who was at that time just as likely to chat to The Bee Gees and Evonne Goolagong as world leaders. His US talk show having been axed and others on shaky ground, Frost puts in a request to interview Nixon, and considerable personal funds to boot. In the red corner we have Nixon, the disgraced President who narrowly missed impeachment by resigning, eager to have a forum in which to exonerate himself in the eyes of the nation.
Both sides underestimate the other, and it is this gradual realisation, leading up to the sessions in which the interviews are taped, which is the most intriguing part of Morgan’s play. A narrator from each side – Jim Reston, the American advisor to Frost determined to give Nixon a trial by TV, and Jack Brennan, Nixon’s tough talking aide – intercepts the action throughout to tell the audience how each camp is feeling, a device which adds to the sense that this is a boxing match. When the time comes for the adversaries to meet face-to-face for 28 hours of interviews, though the eventual outcome is famously known, you still find yourself rooting for Frost, as he tries in vain to score points while Nixon skilfully, and very believably, fields questions. Time-outs between rounds, in which each retreats to his corner to confer with his team, build the tension until the final knock-out, in which Frost gets his man.
Frank Langella as Nixon and Michael Sheen as Frost cleverly convey the change in approach that comes over them both, as each realises how much hangs on this one defining interview. Michael Grandage has directed a production full of tension, drama and comedy, made all the more gripping for being founded on truth.