By BRUCE DENNILL
Nixon In Agony is an audio drama. Audiences are now used to podcasts and audio books – perhaps radio plays – but in a festival context, it feels different. Steven Berkoff plays, with customary crankiness, Richard Nixon, whose opening plea – “Rose, hold my calls” – establishes him as (almost) normal. Except that he is, at the time, the President of the United States and the call he wants to focus on is with a Russian leader, whom he assures, with a curt satirical nod to 2020 America, is able to “speak freely”.
The artwork for this production looks like – it may be; it’s not labelled – a Francis Bacon painting, with the artist’s trademark sinister, discomfiting edge to the portrait of Nixon portrayed there. The recording of the drama supports the feeling that image communicates, as well as the terse writing, with its stereo effect separating voices and effects. It’s complex theatre of the mind that requires sustained concentration to focus on all the details rather than being constantly reminded of them as they are presented to you on a stage.
Nixon’s agony, as it turns out, has to do largely with the way he feels he is perceived, which informs the way he perceives himself. He is angry that he doesn’t fit into the glamorous leader or hero mould of some of his predecessors – Jefferson is targeted; Lincoln, Eisenhower and others mentioned. The Watergate scandal is looming, and Dick is striking out.
Writer-director Adam Donen knows that listening to a man droning on about himself in a single context would be boring and through the inclusion of audience and ambient noise, he occasionally places his character on a stage with a microphone – a stand-up comedian who is getting laughed at, not with.
Phrases in the script often pop out and lodge in the psyche, helped by Berkoff’s on-point delivery. “People react to fear, not love” is one. The echoes of Trump are obvious and must surely be intended. Here we are again, behind the curtains with a man of power, his frailties raw and revealed.
At one point, in reference to Nixon’s discordant piano plonking, a peripheral character notes, “I guess when the president does it, it’s not noise.” It’s a telling statement, underlining that leaders get away with what nobody else would or should.
Elsewhere, layered and overlapping monologues and sound effects make segments of the piece sound like avant-garde political jazz. There is criticism upon slight upon accusation – it’s almost possible to feel sorry for Nixon. But the man is so hyper-aware of his position outside of those born into power and money that he erodes sympathy. Which raises another question: how could a man as unpopular as Nixon believes he is in this drama be voted into the presidency?
This Nixon, and perhaps the real one too, has a complex about being hated by everyone, far in excess of what most listeners might imagine he would feel based on knowledge gleaned from news reports and history books.
“I responded in the spirit of one who loves his own name,” he says. He felt he took a gamble and would have been revered had he succeeded in making a change. “An ordinary man cannot rise to great office and still be loved. Coming from nothing, you don’t get to choose to play dirty – you have to do so to get to where the rich folks start from.”
Nixon in agony, bemoaning his fate, is an unlikeable character. Would he be worth listening to for this long in reality? It’s perhaps a question answered by the crowds who go to political rallies where life imitates this art. And their answers are not particularly encouraging…