Frost/Nixon

Thu 16th – Sun 19th May 2013

reviews

Thea Bradbury

at 01:49 on 17th May 2013

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It's easy to see why performing 'Frost/Nixon' in the Oxford Union debating chamber seemed like a good idea. The Union is, after all, inextricably linked to Nixon: it was the location of his first public speech after the Watergate scandal. Unfortunately, this setting works better in theory than in practice. The debating chamber was not intended to be a theatre, and although the crew have taken pains to block out the numerous windows, there's not much they can do about the awkward acoustics, the lack of tiered seating or the fact that the creaking of the antique benches drowned out some of the play's lines. This was particularly annoying because the quality of the acting was apparent from the very first exchange: a cast this good shouldn't really have to sacrifice their talent for a setting that's little more than a gimmick.

A play focused so tightly on two opposing personalities requires outstanding leads in order to convince; and here 'Frost/Nixon' has succeeded triumphantly. Aleksandr Cvetkovic mimics Nixon's idiosyncrasies closely without ever becoming a caricature, while Ed Barr-Sim as Frost is a winning mixture of charm and nerves. The first act sets up a neat correspondence between the two men, which later intensifies as they realise that only one of them can emerge victorious from their televised confrontation.

This is an admirably even-handed production: despite its tagline being 'Pick a side', suggestions that Nixon is sincere and that Frost is only in it for fame neatly undermine any attempt by the audience to actually do so. The flaws of both are very clear, and the play builds to a surprising climax as Nixon confronts Frost, forcing him to admit how much they have in common. This scene is one of the most masterfully acted of the play: even as they lose control, neither man falls out of character for an instant.

Although 'Frost/Nixon' is naturally centred around the eponymous characters, the supporting cast are also of a very high calibre. Each clearly has a defining trait - idealism, realism, aggression - but the actors transcend these simplistic descriptions, endowing even the most minor characters with individuality. Connie Greenfield plays a memorable Caroline Cushing despite only speaking at length in one scene, and Johnny Purkiss particularly shines as the anti-Nixon narrator, Jim Reston. He inhabits his role fully and clearly enjoys it, playfully breaking the fourth wall to address us directly in the final scene. Credit should also be given to costume designer Ellen Bean, who nicely evokes the Seventies setting of the play without allowing 'period' to tip over into parody.

If there's one criticism that can be made of this production - besides the location - it's that there's almost too much going on. The video screen above the stage isn't used often enough to really make an impression and occasionally the use of recorded images clashes with music from the live band. The dialogues question what drives people to seek political power; 'Frost/Nixon' certainly provides food for thought, but it could have been considerably more powerful if it had chosen just one key idea to pursue.

Overall, this is an extremely good production, by turns both funny and deeply moving, and marred only by its unnecessary busyness. The cast is truly brilliant: if the directors really want to improve 'Frost/Nixon', all they need to do is ditch the glitz and let the acting speak for them.

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Sophie Baggott

at 09:01 on 17th May 2013

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At 7.30pm I entered the Union debating chamber in a near-panic over my fragmentary knowledge of the Frost/Nixon episode. Two and a half hours later I strode out with the conviction of having been an eye-witness to the event’s every moment. At times it almost felt less like a performance and, rather, history on repeat. The casting was genius; each individual seemed to fit the part. The Frost crew’s vibrant dynamic fuelled the first half even when not a lot was actually progressing. Laughter was free-flowing what with the unfailing quips and Ed Barr-Sim’s comic nuances as Frost. Peter Morgan’s script was granted deserving delivery, and the actors grew in stature as the show went on.

Audibility was a worry at first: creaking benches and dodgy acoustics were among the few frailties of the experience. Yet, other than the occasional punchline going unheard, my initial concern was generally unfounded. Sound turned out to be instrumental to the atmosphere, from the jazzy music on entry to the thunderous playback of interview tapes. Accents should also be applauded - Johnny Purkiss as Reston was particularly well-attuned. This charismatic confidante drew us in with his confessional tenor, and his impassioned aversion to Nixon was persuasive.

The interval was timed to perfection, falling between the eve of the first taping and the recording itself. Suspense simmered before the initial interview cleverly broadcast on a screen (albeit slightly damaged) above the TV set. We were simultaneously the viewers to a reality and a transmission. Nixon’s rambling answers wound up the tension felt by all, and the more light-hearted first half was replaced by an intensity reflected in the pendulum of raised voices and heavy silences.

As an erstwhile host of the ex-politician, the chamber quivered with his spectre during Aleksandr Cvetkovic’s stunning monologue in a meltdown phone-call to Frost. This was perhaps the battle-cry needed by the latter for his development as a character, which was skilfully manoeuvred by Barr-Sim.

The most anticipated elements were expressively understated. Nixon’s ultimate confessions were not the explosive sequence expected (at least by me), but human and tragic. Reston’s recital of Aeschylus at the play’s outset became all the more meaningful. The fall from grace was complete, but the endnote was not dark: a freeze-frame in a party. From the binbag-curtains blocking all the windows to the faithful remaking of the play’s original poster on their programme, the diligence of this student production did not go unobserved. Without a doubt, worth the resulting essay-crisis.

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