Thursday 8 March 2018


Crucible, Sheffield
7th March, 2018, matinee

When the President does it, that means that it is not illegal”.

The original production of Frost/Nixon at the Donmar transferred to the West End and Broadway, as well as being adapted into an Oscar-nominated film. Now it’s having its first major UK revival in an edge of the seat production directed by Kate Hewitt. The play profiles the lead-up and recording sessions of David Frost’s interviews with recently-resigned and pardoned President Richard Nixon following the Watergate scandal. I didn’t see the original but it’s still a fascinating profile of two men and Peter Morgan implies that these interviews were the first time that politics and the world of TV came together in an influential way.

In the preshow, members of the Sheffield People’s Theatre populate the stage steaming the curtains, checking the height of the chair and setting up the camera for Nixon’s resignation speech. Here, and in the first scene, it’s one of the last times we see Nixon with much official authority and the first time we see the power that television holds in the play. Where Hewitt’s production really excels is in the use of Andrzej Goulding’s video design. I went from being lost in the close shot of the interview on the screen to jumping back when another character steps in to narrate on how they’re performing, a bit like coaches in the corners of a boxing ring. I wonder if it’s only now, in the era of Trump, that the play is also a sharp exploration of the benefits and cautions of the mixing of media and politics. How was no one before Frost able to get as deep into what Nixon knew? Ethically, should Nixon have been given a share of the profits? What if Frost had failed and Nixon were to have showboated his way back to Washington?

Jonathan Hyde’s Richard Nixon is way more than an impression of those famous loose jowls. Poised and measured, he can conjure Nixon playing the stately orator, looking up into the distance and waxing lyrically on every emotional encounter of his lifetime. But close-up on the live video, and in Charles Balfour’s exposed and exposing lighting, we see the shadows cast on his face from the heavy bags under his eyes caused by the pressures of public office. Hyde portrays him as a man weary of his exiled retirement in sunny California, as someone doing his most to retrospectively save his career, and all in a sympathetic light. Equally as good, Daniel Rigby captures the same toothy TV grin and a naïve optimism of David Frost that Michael Sheen did in the film (and original production at the Donmar). Whilst it still seems hard to believe Frost once led the life of a playboy, Rigby’s performance reaches the level where Frost can convincingly schmooze women, Nixon, audiences and broadcasters but still show enough journalistic grit and curiosity that he can trip up Nixon into admitting his deception.

Goulding does a brilliant job (as with People, Places and Things and Groundhog Day) with the video design. Live feed of the interviews lets us scrutinise their close-ups, whether that’s Nixon’s perspiration or Frost’s over-relaxed posture. It also allows us to see Nixon’s more private moments: instances in his study where we see uncertainty in his eyes or the crucial moment in his dressing room where he realises he’s lost the fight. George Dennis soundtracks the play with 70s numbers; we particularly liked the short burst of Bowie’s ‘Young Americans’ when Frost and the English television executive John Birt meet.
If Frost/Nixon was a new play today, it would be the play of the moment. That is Morgan and Hewitt’s skill in that they communicate the contemporaneity of this moment in history as well as showing it off as a political thriller.

Frost/Nixon plays at the Sheffield Crucible until 17th March, 2018.

Daniel Rigby and Jonathan Hyde in Frost/Nixon. Photo: Mark Douet.

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