By 1977 Nixon had been out of office for three years, but had never admitted his culpability in Watergate. He was living in California, far from the political action, and looking for a chance of rehabilitation.
Meanwhile David Frost, celebrity talk show host, "with a playboy image" is facing a crisis with interest in his shows declining.
The idea that Frost should interview Nixon is attractive to both sides. Nixon and his advisers see Frost as soft and the best chance for the rehabilitation of Nixon's reputation. He is also a likely source of some very useful income. For Frost, interviewing Nixon would be an enormous coup, and if successful would re-establish his career.
The first half covers the initial decision by both sides to go ahead with the interviews, the establishment of teams to assist (largely Frost's team) and wrangling over the format of the interviews and the money that Frost would pay. This might not sound particularly interesting, but the speed with which interval seemed to come is an indication of the riveting nature of the dialog and action.
The second half covers the interviews. There are to be four of them, culminating with Watergate. Nixon creams Frost in the first three interviews, giving long and self-interested answers, often involving stories of his relationships and interactions with people. Although Frost thinks his questions are penetrating, Nixon always manages to turn the answers into a positive for himself. By the time the third interview (on the strong point of Nixon's presidency, Foreign Policy) is complete Frost and his researchers are despondent.
The night before the final interview, Nixon calls Frost, and the discussion makes it clear that only one of them can emerge as a winner in the process. On the basis of his performance in the previous interviews Nixon is confident that he will be the "winner". This call galvanises Frost and drags him from his depression about the project. He settles down to some serious preparation. He is helped in this when one of his researchers, Jim Reston Jnr, finds some damning evidence in the Watergate transcripts, showing that Nixon knew about the White House relationship to the "burglers" long before he had previously admitted, and that he was actively involved in the cover up, including the finding money for bribes.
In the final interview, the roles were reversed. Frost asked a series of penetrating questions, backed up by evidence. Nixon's technique of telling long folksy stories would not work in this context. He seemed about to admit his guilt when his chief of staff called a halt to the interview. During the ensuing discussion between Nixon and his chief of staff, an interesting possibility is suggested. Maybe Nixon is tired of the duplicity and lying - that some part of him would like to make a clean breast of the whole thing. When the interview commences he admits his guilt and asks for the forgiveness of the American people.
Frost has won, and his career is now back on track, and Nixon is consigned to oblivion.
The acting and staging of the play is superb, as noted by Jack Teiwes for Australian Stage Online :
Staged with great economy by veteran director Roger Hodgman, this superb production features an excellent cast all around, yet the major plaudits must inevitably go the titular leads. John Adam as Frost is truly excellent, conjuring a man who is both slickly superficial and publicity-seeking and yet displays deeper levels of troubled integrity that make him an intriguing persona. Although not overshadowing Adam per se, the most remarkable performance is undoubtedly that of character actor Marshall Napier as Nixon. In approaching a figure so widely and mercilessly lampooned as Nixon, it must be a challenge to take on such a role without either resorting to mere mimicry or descending into caricature, especially as at several points the script gives Nixon lines designed to get a laugh. Instead, Napier’s performance is a triumph, an enormously engrossing and often intimate portrayal that manages to make this famously hated man come across with complexity, humour and absolute sincerity. Laced with tremendous nuance and unexpected pathos, Napier creates a vision of Richard Nixon that will stay with you for a long time to come.
The photograph below shows part of one of the interviews. Frost and Nixon sit in easy chairs, while their staffs (and Frost's girlfriend) look on. At the top is the video screen that shows action in closeup.
My verdict: it was a fine production, a fascinating story, well worth seeing, and certainly one of the better plays that we have attended this season. All the same as I left the theatre I did not feel the excitement of some of the other plays this year. It lacked the compelling involvement of Holding the Man , the riotous fun and games of The 39 Steps and the brilliant ensemble acting of Season At Sarsparilla .