Was Richard Nixon shaking my hand? Not quite; it was Aleks Cvetkovic, speaking through a thick imitative accent (which apparently took hours of Youtube-watching to perfect). Those hours certainly paid off; with one or two exceptions Cvetkovic’s voice was spot on. The handshake was part of the ‘immersive’ opening to the play, in which the cast introduce themselves to you in character.
It’s an unsettling experience, breaking the boundary between 2013 and 1978; the year of the famous interviews between Nixon and Frost, a British talk-show host, held after Nixon’s fall from power. The production synopsis describes it as “a clash of titans”, an image difficult to imagine when watching an unfinished preview without props, set or music. However, with the technical additions promised for the finished production, there should be technical brilliance added to this already gripping play.
The preview showed some issues with staging: the cast often felt squashed, or seemed to be moving unnecessarily (cast members would walk on stage, deliver a few lines and then return to their seats). This may be more successfully managed in the debate chamber, but the production would benefit from being more economical with movement.
A play such as Frost/Nixon, however, relies on strong performances from the cast. The supporting members of the cast, who man the cameras and step in for occasional commentary, give fine performances; most notably Jonathan Purkiss as a confident, conversational Jim Reston, Jack Brennan as Nixon’s
gruff and imposing chief-of-staff, and Nick Williams providing a compellingly tense John Birt. But the play’s success relies on its two chief actors: Cvetkovic as Nixon and Ed Barr-Sim as a determined, intelligent Frost. Barr-Sim’s performance suggested he had more to offer; his tense physicality suggested Frost’s nerves but his voice and demeanour could have more clearly suggested the emotions behind his courteous manner. Cvetkovic is the standout here; his performance is startlingly good. With the distinctive voice firmly in place, he portrays Nixon as a master actor, manipulating the emotions of his audience. He hints at great emotional depths (crying in the arms of Henry Kissinger?) and name-drops emotionally loaded details, as praying beside the table on which Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. No wonder Frost’s team look so stressed; Cvetkovic’s Nixon casually destroys all of Frost’s attempts to present Nixon as a cold-hearted villain, instead depicting himslef as the everyday American man only trying to help his country.
It’s impossible to say any more whilst the production is still in construction, particularly without seeing the play in the real performance space. But directors Fennemore and Mitchell have drawn fine performances from their cast. Go for the politics and the sense of history – or for Cvetkovic’s riveting performance.
Frost/Nixon will run from 16th-19th May (Thursday-Sunday of 4th Week) in the Oxford Union debating chamber, starting at 7.30pm each evening, with 14:30pm matinee performances on Saturday and Sunday. Tickets are available from £7.
PHOTO/ Giacomo Sain