Review: Frost/Nixon ~ theatre notes

Friday, May 30, 2008

Review: Frost/Nixon

Frost/Nixon, by Peter Morgan, directed by Roger Hodgman. Designed by Richard Roberts, costumes by Judith Cobb, lighting by Matt Scott, composer Paul Grabowsky. With John Adam, Jada Alberts, Bruce Myles, Marshall Napier, Yalin Ozucelik, Neil Pigot, Teague Rook, Kat Stewart, David Trendinnick and Greg Ulfan. Melbourne Theatre Company @ the Fairfax Studio, Victorian Arts Centre, until July 5. Bookings: 1300 723 038.

In contemporary politics, image is all. It was once said that one picture is worth a thousand words: in these hypermediated times, it’s worth a lot more than that. Words have to be listened to and considered, but a single image drives straight into the collective subconscious.

Every gesture counts. The current US Democratic race is a hallucinatory exercise in image management: Hillary Clinton getting down with the working classes, or Barak Obama’s frantic damage control over the release of pictures where he is supposedly wearing “Muslim” garb.

Television asserted its dominance in the 1960s, when Richard Nixon could not compete with the telegenic John F Kennedy. His tendency to sweat and his “shifty eyes” earned him the epithet “Tricky Dicky”.

Peter Morgan’s play focuses on this shift by dramatising the famous interviews Nixon conducted with British talk show host David Frost in 1977, three years after Nixon resigned from the Presidency to a self-pitying and bitter seclusion

Frost, regarded as a flaky celebrity by the Washington press corps, managed to lever out of this superb political operator a startling admission of wrong-doing and culpability, best summed up in the quote: “When the president does it, that means it’s not illegal.”

Morgan skilfully crafts an argument (and, interestingly, makes one feel slightly nostalgic for Nixon – everything is relative) that television reduces and diminishes public office and debate. However, the play doesn’t escape its own criticisms – it too “simplifies, diminishes”.

Most of Morgan’s work is for the screen, and so it’s unsurprising that this play, even though it resists the genre of docu-drama, is very reminiscent of a dramatised television documentary – brief re-enactments of a variety of encounters, held together by an explanatory narrative delivered by one of Frost’s researchers, Jim Reston (Teague Rook).

The production is powered by a magnificent performance of Nixon by Marshall Napier, which reaches beyond caricature to glimpses of an awkward and disillusioned man, and John Adams’ performance of the charismatic Frost.

Roger Hodgman’s production is unobtrusive and elegant, using a revolve to swiftly move the action across a stage dominated by a big screen, on which the swollen faces of the actors emphasise the unreal focus of the camera.

It’s easily digestible stuff which walks an uneasy line between fiction and non-fiction. Its high dramatic point is a fictional late-night phone call between Frost and a drunk Nixon which, paradoxically, generates the most truthful moments in the play.

This review is published in today's Australian.


xofro said...

I found this a profoundly annoying and, ultimately, disappointing play.

I thought the use of the narrator was a cop-out and the writer used every trick of the trade to *lower* the stakes and dilute the tension that the situations inevitably created. The play continuously pulled its punches so that the white-heat that could have been created never was.

And the now-ubiquitous MTC use of the revolve - the slow, squeaky progression (poorly executed by the stage hands on the night we saw it) slowed things down and let further energy drain away. I hope the MTC ban the use of revolves, conveyor belts, etc and work on 'pure' stage magic before they're allowed to use them again - on a "needs only" basis.

Two very good central performances, though, I grant you that!

Alison Croggon said...

Had I written a longer review, I might have wondered why anybody writes plays like this. It reminded me of Stoppard's Rock'n'Roll (although, I thought, better written). It didn't annoy me so much as left me almost wholly indifferent. Though the production worked quite well the night I saw it.

The play made me nitpicky. I get squirmy when I see people writing about journalists - it's seldom done with any sense of realism and just picks up on all those archetypes so beloved by journalists... and what was that about "steel mines"? Or was it a mistake? You have to remember that I'm a miner's daughter, and I am very well aware that there is no such thing. Either the actor fluffed it, or the writer has an imagination that is superior to industrial realities.