Review: Nixon in Agony audio drama at the vNAF, National Arts Festival (extended to July 16, 2020)

Nixon in Agony

Created, written and directed by: Adam Donen

Performer: Steven Berkoff

Scroll down for production credits and ticket info for Nixon in Agony

Nixon in Agony is premiering on the vNAF – the Virtual National Arts Festival – streaming from South Africa. It is the world premiere of this audio play which has been created, written and directed by South African born Adam Donen who currently lives in Germany. The play is based on accounts and the historical records of the last 24 hours of Richard Nixon’s tenure when he was crafting his resignation speech. Renowned British actor Steven Berkoff takes on the role as Nixon who rants about why he did what he did and that his actions were spurred for the greater good of the nation. In the play, Nixon is ghosted by past presidents and his adversaries – dangling over him – stalking and heckling his fall.

With impeachment looming over him, Nixon resigned in on August 9, 1974. He was cornered and this is what Donen conjures up in Nixon in Agony- a fallen man writhing and squirming at his fate. We hear the brilliant Berkoff sputtering out Nixon’s delusions and spin doctoring. It is all a game. Nixon reckons that he was a mere pawn in the game; a role player. He had come from a poor family (he did) and when you come from nothing, you have to claw your way to power. This is the American Dream of Exceptionalism; the power and glory of ruling from the Oval Office.  Nixon admits that “when you get to the top and you have nothing to lose; then it is over.” He adds: “You know that nothing is left.” One can cry while the crowd is “hissing and spitting.” However, a pro doesn’t cry, he asserts. He chose his the path and that there is no point being “pathetic”. Others may cringe. But: Do you fold? Hell, no. You don’t give in to becoming pathetic. No matter how much you have given “you can still have that magic moment.” Even in the end, there is a certain magic and allure in his failure.

The bottom line, muses Nixon: “They always hated you – from the start… maybe they don’t even know why.” In the end, “the world cannot remember why it hates you…You sunk and are covered in shit and slime”. No one remembers the details, he opines: “the context and meaning” is gone.  He bleats that he is in a boxing ring and there is no way out. Ultimately, he “cared for his own country”.

The rant is overlaid with a voices, sounds (chairs scraping, bells rigging, rotary phones dialling, ringing, static), snatches of conversations and refrains. I felt like vomiting after listening; sickened to the core. Of course there are echoes of the rants of current politicians – the polemics, spin doctoring during the agony of the global pandemic. We thought that the world was in agony before 2020 – with growing populism, racism, Brexit – a mess. And now, we are all writhing; glued to our TVs as we wait for the leaders of nations to lead us in the war of Covid-19. When this is over – whenever that is – will the details be lost? Will the context and meaning be wiped away by who can create jobs and turn economies around?

I have read about the production of this audio play – that Berkoff recorded his role from London and was connected on Zoom to Donen, in Germany. I have read about the sonic layering of sound and voice and technical wizardry. The format – not sure if that covers it – let’s say tableaux – is remarkable. Donen has created a choral montage which has an effect of almost transmuting dialogue into riffs that one might get from a musical score. Technically it is an astounding achievement. I am sure higher resolution earphones, would have enhanced my listening experience.

I didn’t expect that the play itself would be so powerful. The text by Donen chilled me to the core. I am not sure if I listened to the same piece as other people who have raved about the technical mastery but glossed over the play. What is it about? Oh, it is about Nixon’s nightmare and take us inside his head. Actually, it is our nightmare that we are in, right now. Donen’s Nixon in Agony amplifies our agony and anguish- the static, noise, echoes, microphones squeaking, clanking, clinking, cracking, hissing (glass, ice, doors etc). We are mired in Nixons, all around us.

Our nightmare is overlaid with the rants of politicians, muffled through masks and the streaming of tweets and strips of info on our TV screens. We have no context and the details will probably coalesce into a fugue of amnesia when the virus eventually burns out or a vaccine/treatment is found. In the end, politicians will likely say that they did everything for the good of the people, with good intentions.  In the end, it does not matter if politicians admit culpability. When the damage is done, it is done. I don’t think that this is the point of Nixon in Agony that he is seeking absolution or forgiveness. We journey into a skewed and deluded mind. We are in listening in from a world in which we have lost context and meaning; with sound, fury and agony. Signifying what?  Accountability lies in the future when the nightmare is over – and it won’t matter as we scramble on with our lives. It will be too late to apologise.

Technically, Nixon in Agony is a stunning achievement as an intensely immersive audio play. Beyond the technics, Donen’s script is what makes this piece tick. Coupled with Berkoff’s voice – pulling us in – ranting, coaxing, beguiling, seducing us – Nixon in Agony is a triumph of audio play. One needs to concentrate very carefully and take in each word and the ambient soundscape of voices and effects. It left me reeling. Do not miss. I see that the play garnered two stars out of five stars in the review in The Guardian, UK. It gets five stars from me.

Nixon in Agony at the vNAF

  • Genre: Audio Drama
  • Format: Audio
  • Duration: 1 hour
  • Language: English
  • Ages: 12+
  • Available: On at the vNAF Curated Programme, until July 16,  2020
  • Direct booking link:

Image credit: Pic supplied.