Photograph of the cast.

Frost/Nixon: an outstanding performance of post-truth politics

Does anyone know what Watergate is? Watergate was definitely the thing to do with Nixon. And Watergate had something to do with the Democrats, or maybe with burglary, or maybe with hidden recordings and secret tapes. It was definitely a long time ago – in the seventies – and, now one thought about it, Nixon might even be dead. 

But once the St John’s Drama Society’s production of Peter Morgan’s Frost/Nixon started, the audience of teenagers and 20-somethings who were ignorant of the finer details of 50-year-old American politics suddenly found that all of this didn’t really matter. Frost/Nixon was outstanding – the best piece of student theatre I’ve seen in all my time suffering through friends’ plays at Oxford – and was a gripping performance of the interviews President Nixon did with British talk show host David Frost after he resigned as president following the Watergate scandal.

The play runs from Nixon’s resignation and Frost’s career difficulties (his show in the US has been cancelled) to the production and filming of the interview, rounded up by their final meeting post-airing. It is told via live enactment of events and the reflections of two individuals, a researcher for Frost and Nixon’s aide, who are closely involved with each side of the interviews. 

The supporting cast all do an adequate job. Georgina Cooper in particular stands out as Jim Reston, the researcher working for Frost, and Philip Nedelev (playing Jack Brennan) is a convincingly military aide and assistant for Nixon. Hasina Ibrahim, Blaze Pierzchniak, and Freya Ashworth also feature in a collection of roles ranging from Nixon’s money-grabbing agent to the make-up artist on set. But what set this play apart were the fantastic performances by Sol Woodroffe as David Frost and Rohan Joshi as Richard Nixon. 

Joshi’s performance of Nixon was incredible – to the point that when he walked past me after the performance, I genuinely struggled to recognise him. He somehow managed to portray the ageing Nixon, left to do nothing but golf in his Californian estate, with the assurance and maturity of someone who had done much more than a term and a half of university. His command of Nixon’s body language and gestures was exceptional, nervously dabbing his upper lip during the interviews (Nixon had lost a previous Presidential run on the grounds that his sweating face made him look guilty) and jogging on the spot to try and regain some lost youthful vigour. As for the accent – well when I went home and watched some of the clips from the original interviews, I could hardly tell the difference. 

Woodroffe sparkled as an exuberant David Frost, seeking to regain his professional mojo after being dropped by his US network and keeping busy by covering humdrum events in Australia. We’re left questioning what Frost’s motives for the interview really are – does he care at all about truth or politics? Or does he just see this as a way to make money and get back into the A-list circles he is used to? 

The play reached a climax when Nixon phones Frost the night before their final day of recording, when they will finally tackle the questions on Watergate. Frost, lounging in a bathrobe with the woman he picked up on the flight to Los Angeles, was startled into attention by Nixon, who inquired what such an attractive young man was doing alone on a Friday night. They discussed the interview, and what each has done to prepare. Nixon screams down the phone that they are both underdogs that the world isn’t expecting to succeed. Frost points out that in the battle of the interview – frequently likened to a boxing match throughout the play – there can only be one winner. The audience was left salivating for the last interview. 

The audience’s ignorance of Watergate worked in Frost/Nixon’s favour. As most were genuinely in the dark as to what was going to happen next, Woodroffe and Joshi’s pitch-perfect delivery of soliloquies, interjections, and body language kept the tension consistently high. When the big moment came – that Nixon had known about, and been involved in, the cover up – it didn’t disappoint. 

Understandably, for a play with a two-night run that is cast only from one college, there was room for improvement. Scenes in the first act recounting the financial negotiations over Nixon’s appearance on the show could have been cut, or at the very least condensed. The protracted discussions over Frost gathering his team of researchers also felt dull, and difficult to follow. Essentially, any scene that took us away from the tense, pulsing dyad of Frost and Nixon felt like a waste of time. 

Reston’s fears of American politics being turned into a landscape of lies and corruption prompted a consideration of current concerns about our own political landscape. Although Reston is the discoverer of the ultimately incriminating documents, the play isn’t called Reston/Nixon. Reston played a crucial role as main narrator of the piece yet was treated even by those on his side as the crazy Nixon-hating conspiracy theorist, despite his hunches being proven right in the end. ‘Fake news’ and the rise of populism have created a perception that the 21st century is unique in the dissemblance of its politicians and the potentially illegal acts that some have stooped to, supported by examples such as the abortive impeachment proceedings against Donald Trump after the January 6th capital Capitol riots. Yet Frost/Nixon succinctly depicted the politics of a not-so-bygone era, where Nixon resigns the presidency rather than face a potentially truth-discovering trial, and instead opts for the now familiar show-biz option, writing memoirs and being interviewed by a talk show host. 

Optimistically, perhaps politics has always been this way, suggesting that liberal hysteria and concerns are misplaced. But one might be more inclined to the view that Nixon’s actions, and appearance with Frost, marked the beginning of a different kind of politics that saw the truth as something to be bargained with and manoeuvred. As playwright Morgan (The Crown) said, “there’s no one truth about what happened in those interviews, so I feel very relaxed about bringing my imagination to the piece. God knows everyone else has.”

Image Credit: Photograph provided by St John’s Drama Society