A series of TV interviews by David Frost with recently departed US President Richard Nixon in the wake of Watergate might sound an unlikely source of drama.
But the play Frost/Nixon, by Peter Morgan, was a hit in London and New York and became an Oscar-nominated movie.
Now the Crucible is mounting the first British theatrical revival with Jonathan Hyde and Daniel Rigby in the roles played by Frank Langella and Michael Sheen on stage and screen.
Kate Hewitt, who directed Tribes in the Studio last year and is now making her Crucible main stage debut, had seen the film – but not the play.
“I tried as hard as possible to get the film out of my head and have my own response to it and kept asking the question, why is this a play which made such an extraordinary film? Why is it on stage, what is the movement, what is the atmosphere? How can I make it visceral, as well as intellectual and all the other wonderful stimulating things it is?”
She was able to spend time with Peter Morgan, writer of both the play and the movie screenplay.
“He is very engaged with this production and he has not allowed any revivals before. This is the first one here, it’s done in America a lot. But it has had very tight reins kept on it and we have managed to break through,” she says with a grin.
She thinks she convinced him of ‘my interest in the two characters of Frost and Nixon and my excitement about the technicalities about how I might stage it.’
The original staging was in the much more intimate Donmar Warehouse and, although it’s not just a two-hander (there’s a cast of 10 plus members of the Sheffield Peoples Theatre) the moments when the play closes in on the interviews presents a challenge for her and designer Ben Stones on the more epic Crucible stage.
The play makes use of video projection but technology has changed since 2006 so video designer Andrzej Goulding has taken a new approach. “I’ve shown Peter the design and I think he is really excited it is different from the original.”
There is, of course, plenty of footage of Nixon and Frost on YouTube. “My background in theatre, I have always loved the physicality of characters and what that reveals of their psychology,” says the director.
She also consulted various people who could shed light on the subject, from James Renton Jr – the man who produced the incriminating piece of evidence that allowed Frost to nail Nixon – to Ron Howard who directed the movie.
How is a play about an incident in 1977 and first performed 11 years ago relevant today? “Obviously watching a play about toppling a president would never feel more satisfying than right now, but really it goes beyond that particular American theme and it speaks to me on many levels. It is about the importance of challenging authority and power when they are corrupt and that doesn’t matter whether that is in theatre, within Oxfam or in American or British politics; it applies to all of it.
“I hope that the people of Sheffield will know they have a bit of a coup on their hands. I feel it’s a very political city and even for young people who don’t remember that particular moment in history, it doesn’t matter. Peter writes with such clarity that you know in an instance who David Frost is even if you didn’t know before. All these American TV shows (such as the OJ Simpson trial) show that Peter was ahead of his game.”
Frost/Nixon starts previews at the Crucible on Friday and continues until March 17.