At Jericho Arts Centre until August 7, 2015
Posted July 19, 2015
“What phone call?” With those three words from former American president Richard Nixon, British talk show host David Frost was pretty certain he had Nixon on the ropes. And with a damning memo from the president in hand – uncovered by Jim Reston, one of Frost’s investigative team – it was game, set and match. Frost had what he wanted: a televised admission from Nixon that he was guilty of a cover-up in the Watergate scandal. In America alone, 45 million viewers finally heard the truth. Tricky Dick staunchly maintained, however, that while he “made mistakes” – considered criminal by the rest of us – “it’s not a crime when the President does it.”
Frost, known as a partyer, womanizer and playboy, appeared to embark on the three-part interviews as something of a lark. He knew that 400 million viewers worldwide had watched Nixon resign live on TV and that was enough to persuade his friend and his talk show producer John Birt to take a chance. Frost was not known for biting or insightful interviewing so he took on an investigative team and they had fire in their bellies – especially Reston who desperately wanted to see Nixon shot down in flames. Frost’s interviewing style, however, allowed Nixon to meander and go on personal tangents driving his team – Reston, Bob Zelnick and Birt – frantic. Nixon had been paid $600,000 for the interview and not all the sponsors had been secured. What they had in the first two of three interviews was bland, even boring. Losing their shirts – and probably their shorts, too – was a real threat.
Then, well into his cups, Nixon called Frost late at night from his hotel room. What transpired in that conversation was totally forgotten (or completely denied) by Nixon the next morning.
Summer is the silly season on Vancouver stages but Frost/Nixon is definitely not silly. Written by Peter Morgan, Frost/Nixon premiered in London in 2006, on Broadway in 2007 and released as a film the following year. Directed by Ian Farthing, there’s no swordplay, no singing or dancing, no lavish costumes. But there’s humour of the grim variety and verbal sparring to match any duel on the Bard on the Beach stage.
Rebecca Burks’ set design is spare: two armchairs on a revolve in an ‘in-the-square’ setting. While Tariq Leslie (as Frost) and Michael Robinson (Nixon) face off under the bright lights of the television cameras, lighting designer Scott Zechner keeps Adam Beauchesne (Reston), Matthew Kennedy (Zelnick) and Farthing (Birt) slightly offside in shadows. While the cameras are rolling we see them almost tearing their hair as Frost allows Nixon to blither on. Also in the shadows are Joel Garner (Col. Jack Brennan, Frost’s loyal henchman and advisor) and Kazz Leskard (Swifty Lazar, the American dealmaker).
Robinson has clearly watched many hours of Richard Nixon’s speeches and he channels the president extraordinarily well: the clipped vocal style, the wooden physicality, the attempts at humour that fall flat. As Frost, Leslie is not particularly (but appropriately) likeable; talk show hosts are, perhaps, more indulged or feared than liked. Together, Leslie and Robinson make a very strong team and even when Nixon is rambling, it’s riveting – because in that self-indulgent reminiscing, Nixon is looking like the victor, not the victim, and there’s so much at stake. President Gerald Ford had already pardoned Nixon and without an admission of guilt, the whitewashing would have been complete.
Very fine work here by young Beauchesne, arguably (as Reston) the most committed to nailing Nixon to the wall.
Frost/Nixon is a terrific play, an excellent production and – although summer is the only season that can be forgiven for being silly – a welcome, serious addition to the local offerings.
ETC is also mounting The Children’s Hour and ‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore in repertory until August 8. Respite from ridiculous.