There is, of course, a tape recorder, there at the side of the stage. No play about Richard Nixon would seem complete without one. And if you don’t know why I say that, then you’ll have problems with Secret Honour – because it’s stuffed full of such historical details, and very few of those details are in any way explained.
Set in the late 1970’s, Secret Honour sees Richard Nixon – the only president of the United States ever to resign his post – alone with a bottle of whiskey, recording his memoirs onto the aforementioned cassette. The ex-president’s rambling monologue touches on Watergate (the protracted scandal which ultimately forced from office), but he spends far longer talking about his earlier life: his vice-presidency to Ike Eisenhower, his time in the electoral wilderness, and his mysterious links with those who supported his campaign.
The Nixon of the play is a truly broken man, and actor Steve Scott captures his descent with a superb mix of aggression and vulnerability. He doesn’t make him a likeable figure – on the contrary, Nixon’s notorious tendency to self-pity is very much to the fore – but you still feel empathy for all that he’s lost, as his increasingly drunken monologue sees him falling to his knees and, eventually, the floor. Scott has fully mastered an unremittingly dense script, and director Nigel Fairs has helped him craft a dynamic, accelerating performance, which reflects the mental decline often thought to characterise Nixon’s last weeks in the White House.
There are some accessible ideas underpinning the monologue, especially the piquant description of Nixon’s childhood and the thought of what it means to be “pardoned” for a crime you claim you didn’t commit. But if you don’t already have a solid grasp of twentieth-century American politics, most of the conversation will make little sense to you. Or if, like me, you’re a Watergate geek, it’s disappointing in a different way: because it covers so much ground, ticking off the well-known facts so thoroughly and meticulously, it doesn’t find time to dig particularly deeply into anything.
The director’s notes in the programme tackle these arguments head-on: suggest it doesn’t matter “how few names we recognise, how many historical facts pass over our heads”. I could barely disagree more. This isn’t a tide of puzzlement lapping gently around you; it’s a relentless tsunami of words and details, which crashes straight through the middle of plot, premise and themes. And towards the end it swirls off onto a ludicrous conspiracy theory, suggesting that Nixon engineered his own downfall to escape the clutches of darker powers. I’m honestly not sure whether we’re meant to take that seriously or simply view it as the delusional invention of a bitter, self-justifying man.
But still, despite everything, I’m glad I saw Secret Honour – and if you’re a connoisseur of Fringe theatre, you ought to see it too. Because Steve Scott’s performance is a genuine tour-de-force; strong enough to overcome the confusion and frustrations running through the script, and reveal something human, someone we can pity and almost understand. The weariness and hopelessness Scott ascribes to Nixon will stay with me for a long time. So the performance is unimpeachable… but as for the script, it’s “expletive deleted”.