Researcher Jim Reston wanted to give Richard Nixon the trial he never received. David Frost wanted to earn back his credibility and fame as an interviewer. Richard Nixon wanted an opportunity to tell his side of the story to a nation and a world that wanted to rid its hands of him.
These tensions propel the narrative in Frost/Nixon, currently being performed at Halifax’s Neptune Theatre. The Tony-award winning play recreates the famous 1977 television interviews between Nixon and Frost, which produced a tacit admission of guilt from the disgraced former president regarding his role in the Watergate cover-up.
Frost/Nixon is written by screenwriter and dramatist Peter Morgan (The Queen, The Last King of Scotland). Its original incarnation, which opened in London in 2006 before moving to Broadway last year, starred Michael Sheen and Frank Langella in the lead roles. Taking on the real-life personalities at Neptune are Clive Walton as Frost and Jim Mezon as Nixon.
The play presents Nixon as a sympathetic but flawed figure, something which may surprise audiences expecting an historical villain to get his due. Speaking as part of the “In Conversation” series after Wednesday night’s performance, Dalhousie faculty fellow Gilbert Winham confided his own views of Nixon changed over time.
“My first recollection of Nixon is that my family hated him,” he explained. “We were a Democratic family through and through…but when I was teaching American foreign policy in the 1970s here at Dal, eventually I had to accept that he was a very astute manager of foreign policy. The move to China, for example, could only have been done by a Republican and it was absolutely necessary.”
Highlighting the play’s portrayal of Nixon as a competitive adversary, Dr. Winham explained how Nixon was a vicious campaigner who personalized his interactions with world leaders and held his grudges close. While blessed with a wry sense of humour, he was not a highly personable man and he was jealous and bitter towards peers like the Kennedy brothers who were more popular than he was.
As for the Watergate scandal that was his downfall, Dr. Winham found it interesting that Nixon had a reputation for smart realpolitik in a crisis but let his personal failings prevail in moments of overconfidence. “What brought him down was covering up a second rate burglary, which wasn’t even necessary because he was well on his way to a second election victory.”
Frost/Nixon runs through November 16 at Neptune Theatre. (Neptune offers students a 20 per cent discount on regularly priced single tickets to all productions.) A film adaptation also written by Morgan and directed by Ron Howard, is being released over the holiday season.
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