Review: British provincial premiere of Frost/Nixon is electrifying

Jonathan Hyde as Richard Nixon in Frost/Nixon. Photo by Mark Douet.
Jonathan Hyde as Richard Nixon in Frost/Nixon. Photo by Mark Douet.

The tapes David Frost made in 1977 of his interviews with Richard Nixon, who had recently resigned as the 37th President of the United States, are the basis for Peter Morgan’s play.

The current production by Sheffield Theatres is an absorbing and electrifying experience.

Frost/Nixon started its life at the Donmar Warehouse 12 years ago, and was later made into an acclaimed film. But this is the first time it has been performed outside London in this country.

Kate Hewitt, the director, and Ben Stones, the designer, are aided by Andrzej Goulding, who uses live camera feeds in his video design – an element which helps give the show its edge of immediacy and risk. Three screens enable the audience to see both Frost and Nixon in close-up – an intimacy rarely achieved on a large stage.

Daniel Rigby is suitably opaque in his portrayal of Frost; and Jonathan Hyde, who played Julius Caesar at the Crucible last year, is a totally believable Nixon – devious, parsimonious, self-doubting, projecting a fractured sense of self-irony, having to explain he is making a joke when he makes a joke, nauseatingly self-righteous. The beauty of both performances is that they avoid caricature. Everything we see adds to our understanding of the psychology of the two men.

In the last of the interviews, Frost, armed with a crucial bit of evidence which one of his aides has discovered, moves in for the kill. Up to that point Nixon has outplayed Frost, spinning folksy yarns about his upbringing and relating banal experiences with foreign politicians. Nixon’s confession of wrong-doing leaves him with no way back into political life:‘I let the American people down’.

The rest of the cast flesh out the background characters,and help to create an authentic sense of the times. They include Ben Dilloway as Jack

Brennan, Nixon’s chief of staff, a barbed performance of a manipulative, liberal-hating, military man. There is humour – of the kind that is rooted in accurate observation.

The closing moments have the complexity of life itself. Frost and Nixon are adversaries, but at some level maybe friends as well. Is Nixon suitably chastened, or still in denial? It’s hard to say. Are Frost and Nixon representatives of a common, if flawed, humanity? Or are they

essentially hollow, opportunists, performers lacking any real substance? Might Frost have the makings of a politician? There’s a hint of this in the dialogue. All of which brings us into the present, making one think of the television performer who is the 45th President of the

United States, the celebrity culture which has emerged in recent years, and the power of different forms of media to challenge political orthodoxies and influence public events.

Frost/Nixon is on at the Crucible until Saturday. March 17.