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No Sacred Cows  
Toby Young
Saturday 2nd September 2006

Frost/Nixon


There's a moment towards the end of Frost/Nixon when the narrator, Jim Reston, launches an attack on television that is guaranteed to strike a chord with the entire metropolitan class. "The first and greatest sin of television is that it simplifies," he says. "Great, complex ideas, tranches of time, whole careers, become reduced to a single snapshot."

I don't know whether Peter Morgan, the author of Frost/Nixon, believes this, but I hope he doesn't because the reason his play is so good is that he has spent almost his entire career writing for television. (He wrote The Deal--the award-winning docudrama about Blair and Brown--as well as the latest version of Colditz.) He knows how to create characters with a few economical strokes. He knows how to devise a plot. Above all, he knows how to grab an audience's attention and then hold it for the best part of two hours.

On the face of it, Frost/Nixon is a straightforward docudrama about the series of interviews that David Frost conducted with Richard Nixon in 1977--the most watched current affairs programme in the history of television, according to Reston. We learn about the protracted negotiations that preceded the meeting between the two men, the months of preparation, the interviews themselves, and the immediate aftermath. This in itself is interesting enough, but Morgan has succeeded in giving this confrontation real dramatic power by, rather ingeniously, utilizing the conventions of the boxing picture.

In Morgan's version of events, David Frost is the Sylvester Stallone character in the first Rocky movie, the rank outsider who's given a shot at the title because the powers-that-be think it will make for a good PR stunt. Nixon, by contrast, is Apollo Creed, the arrogant, heavyweight champion who fatally underestimates his opponent. Predictably enough, when Frost and Nixon get in the ring together, the wily ex-President wins round after round until it looks as though the challenger is about to throw in the towel. But, in the final round, Frost digs deep and manages to find an inner-core of steely resolve. Against all odds, he fights back and, eventually, lands a killer punch--a blow from which Tricky Dicky never recovers. At the end of the play, Nixon is out for the count and Frost is the new heavyweight champ.

This may sound a bit far-fetched and, indeed, from a purely factual point of view, it is. Yes, Frost was hosting a chat show in Australia when he first approached Nixon with his idea, but he'd already interviewed a number of world leaders, including Nixon himself. As for the 37th President of the United States, he was hardly the undisputed champion of the world in 1977, having been hounded from office three years earlier.

Nevertheless, as a dramatic device, the boxing conceit works like gangbusters. One of the reasons these tried-and-tested popular genres endure is that they're capable of keeping us on the edge of our seats even though we know exactly how the story will end. Incredibly, Frost/Nixon is almost unbearably exciting, something I never thought I'd say about a play that documents the making of a current affairs programme. (What's next? A comedy about Jeremy Paxman's legendary confrontation with Michael Howard?)

Frost/Nixon is Morgan's first ever play and his achievement shouldn't be underestimated, but he's blessed with a hugely talented cast. Nixon is played by Frank Langella, one of the finest actors on Broadway, and Michael Sheen gives a mesmerizing performance as the oleaginous television presenter. The supporting cast, too, is excellent, particularly Kerry Shale as Swifty Lazar, the famous Hollywood agent who represented Nixon in his negotiations with Frost.

My only quibble with the production as a whole is with the rather cumbersome set design by Christopher Oram. He's erected a video wall at the back of the stage and, during the interviews themselves, we get to see giant close-ups of the actors as they lock horns. The audience hardly needs this reminder that the subject of the play is a television programme and, given how small the Donmar Warehouse is, we don't really need to see blow-ups of the actors faces either. Having said that, though, the video wall may well prove quite helpful in a larger theatre--and Frost/Nixon is surely destined to transfer, both to the West End and to Broadway. Morgan has pulled off the trick of disguising what is essentially a piece of lowbrow entertainment as something highbrow and edifying, a sure-fire formula for success in the theatre. Frost/Nixon has the unmistakable whiff of a colossal hit.

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