There is song by Nova Scotian singer-songwriter Melanie Doane, wife of Frost/Nixon’s director Ted Dykstra, called “Goliath” which urges us to realize that no one is bigger than us once we awake the giant in ourselves. Peter Morgan’s play Frost/Nixon is a classic David and Goliath tale. It relates the true story of how British journalist David Frost forced disgraced American President Richard Nixon to admit to the criminal activity he had committed in office, and offer an apology to the American people on television for the first time.
As the title suggests, the success of this play hinges on the actors playing Richard Nixon and David Frost. The magnificent Len Cariou is incredible as Nixon; he commands the stage with an unmistakable presidential air, while creating a nuanced portrait of a man who is deeply insecure, awkward and quite humorless. Cariou takes Nixon out of the caricature we have become familiar with, and infuses him with all the contradictions, and varied emotions of a complex human being, without eliciting too much sympathy from the audience.
David Storch, from what I’ve been able to gather from watching old clips on youtube, deviates significantly from a realistic portrait of Frost, and instead creates his own heightened vision of a playboy talk show host. In this way, Storch uses familiar images-almost stereotypes- to play with both the idea of how those of more honourable and reputable positions perceived Frost, and also how television can so easily skew the viewers’ perceptions and their reality.
Storch’s performance is every bit as nuanced and detailed as Cariou’s, and it is fascinating to watch how David Frost’s personality morphs and changes depending on what situation he is in. In his programme note, historian James Reston Jr., the man who helped the real David Frost pin Richard Nixon to the notorious Watergate scandal, likens Nixon to Proteus, a mythological Greek shape-shifter. Storch’s Frost not only pins Proteus down, but also shares Nixon’s gift of being able to shift, and this reinforces one of the most interesting aspects of the play, the connection and the similarities between this David and his Goliath.
The issue with Morgan’s play, I think, especially for a Canadian audience that is used to plays where every actor onstage is performing a crucial, substantial role, is that there are ten other actors onstage beyond Cariou and Storch, and not enough for any of them to do. The play has a sort of awkward narrative set-up, which means the audience is continually being pulled in and then dragged out of the action. The scenes of interviews are gripping, but something still falls a little flat because Morgan hasn’t given his supporting characters the attention that they deserve.
Director Ted Dykstra effectively uses media to embed the story in 1977, while creating a real sense of the circus that often surrounds both Presidents and celebrities, as well as establishing a strong sense of the interviews being akin to a boxing match. The play ends with a close-up of the real Nixon’s tearful eyes, an image that does not attempt to sway one’s opinion in either direction, but is a firm reminder that in order for David to win, Goliath must lose.
Frost/Nixon provides a fascinating insight into a dark period of American history, an era that shares many frightening similarities with the United States’ current administration. It raises many of the questions that I would urge all my readers to ask themselves about all contemporary governments. How much has my perception been skewed by the media? Where do politics stop and show business begin? How do we hold our leaders accountable for their actions? The play also celebrates the act of asking questions, which I think is the most essential and powerful tool that we have. Despite some structural issues, I think Len Cariou and David Storch’s fascinating performances are worth seeing, and I urge you to think critically about the themes that Morgan raises throughout the play because unfortunately in both Canada and the United States, this is not ancient history, but terrifyingly relevant.