Rogues & Vagabonds

theatre, film & tv past and present 2001-2008 & 2013…

Archive Review • FROST/NIXON • Donmar Theatre • 2006


Michael Sheen –at the 81st Academy Awards– y Frank Langella –at the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival [Wikimedia]

Michael Sheen –at the 81st Academy Awards– y Frank Langella –at the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival [Wikimedia]

I always believed that there were two famous people called David Frost. The first, active in the 60s and 70s before I was born, seemed to have been by all accounts a dashing, respected, intelligent satirist and heavyweight interviewer. I assumed he had subsequently died or retired, because the David Frost I knew was a cumbersome – and mildly dribblesome – presenter of such daytime washouts as Through The Keyhole. It was only a few years ago that I connected the two, chancing across archive footage of a gangly but still recognisable Frost buzzing around Muhammad Ali.

Peter Morgan’s play captures the two title figures at critical moments in their careers. Frost’s star is in danger of fading as he is reduced to interviewing minor celebrities on Australian television. Equally, Nixon is lolling in the Californian wilderness following his ignominious exit from office. “One last shot,” he says to a photographer at the beginning of the play. That’s precisely what he gets. Both need rehabilitation and it is this shared need between the two men that illuminates Morgan’s approach.

Frost will stop at nothing to interview the disgraced President, running the risk of bankrupting himself and simultaneously opening himself to charges of cheque-book journalism. Nixon, meanwhile, with his first-rate lawyer’s mind, is confident he can run rings around the young playboy and come across on television as an honourable but unfortunate man whilst pocketing the cash.

Michael Sheen, currently cornering the market in portrayals of familiar figures, pitches Frost somewhere between his two most notable successes; Tony Blair and Kenneth Williams. More accurately he seems to have gone for a composite of the voice of David Dickinson and the looks of the young Wogan but a quick mental check will reassure you that this is close enough. It is to his credit that by the end of the play we forget that his performance has an impersonatory element to it; it is believable – and touching – in its own right.

Meanwhile in the red corner Frank Langella as Nixon eschews the quest for physical resemblance and instead creates an immediately credible powerhouse of an angry and haunted man. The stance, the awkward, bear-like gestures are all there, as is the gruff but surprisingly charming voice. Langella manages to look both tired and startled, perhaps an all too believable appearance for a man who has seen too much.

Initially the two men circle each other warily with a slightly uncertain bonhomie. For much of the time Nixon has an almost Aspergers-like absence of conversational naturalness but will suddenly volley a hugely perceptive comment as if perhaps he knows all along what he is doing. There is a lovely moment when he playfully (or is it mock-playfully?) refuses to hand over a cheque to his agent.

What makes this play unmistakeably great is that, imperceptibly, its initial concerns give way to an examination of human failings and tragedy, an analysis that is somehow both broader and more forensic than could be expected from the unlikely pairing of these two characters. The structure of the play allows us to follow at first the machinations that lead to the interviews before Act Three gives us the televised skirmishes themselves.

Christopher Oram’s design forces us to decide whether we watch the interviews in the flesh or on the bank of television screens that dominates the back of the set, simultaneously relaying the action. One is drawn, surprisingly, to the screens, where the slightly pixellated faces looming out of the darkness seem to offer a more stark and ghoulish portrait.

The climactic moment when, under pressure from Frost’s A Few Good Men-like pincer movement, Nixon at last admits a degree of culpability, is unbearably moving. There are few sights in life as affecting as a powerful man trying not to cry and Langella delivers a beautifully choked performance here, his eyes wet but his dignity still just about intact. The televisions freeze on his final moment and we are left to ponder it, drawn into the deep, sorrowful gaze of a failed man.

The pathos is so great partly because the journey to it has been so light-footed and there are many good jokes and neat observations along the way. Morgan treads a very fine line between making Frost a comic figure and alienating us from him. A sequence in which he chats up a woman in first class is half-repellent and half-touching and both Morgan and Sheen show themselves true masters of the tightrope.

Sheen is too good an actor to be forever typecast as a species of impersonator, however gifted he is at this. Nevertheless, as a final hurrah to this type of work he could do a lot worse than Frost/Nixon. But it is Langella over whom one leaves the theatre brooding. His performance is one of the greatest I have ever seen on the stage; his early bluster by degrees peeling away to reveal – only here and there – the hollowness, the loss and the profound moral loneliness inside the villain.

At the end of the play he mulls over his life with Frost in a rare moment of introspection. When first they met he was quick to disparage Frost’s lifestyle but now he is struck by the totally new thought that Frost may actually enjoy the parties he so frequently attends. He marvels at the talk-show host’s gift of “liking people and being liked” and contrasts this with himself, “better suited for a life of thought”. He muses that perhaps they should have taken each other’s lives. Of course, Nixon deserved the medieval humiliation he received but that doesn’t stop us feeling sympathy. Whether or not Nixon was as humbled and philosophical as Morgan paints him is not the point: the writer reminds us of the humanity in each of us.

My only gripe with this production is that the excellent Rufus Wright brings a certain warmth to his portrayal of the hideous stain that is John Birt, but any production that makes us feel sorry for Nixon and admire David Frost has to be hailed as a work of genius.

Jonathan Dory © 2006

Originally published on R&V on 25-08-06

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