Friday, 6 July 2012

Theatre review: Democracy

After the craziness of Noises Off, a different side to Michael Frayn's work comes to the Old Vic. Plugging a gap before the venue goes into Olympic hibernation is a transfer from Sheffield, Paul Miller's production of Democracy. And it's another in the batch of Cold War plays that have been an unlikely theme in London lately, charting the early 1970s through the office of West German Chancellor Willy Brandt (Patrick Drury.) As the play opens Brandt is the head of a tenuous coalition with the Liberal party, and the first left-wing West German government since the War. He plans to make advances towards healing the rift with the Eastern Bloc, who are themselves keen to find out if he can be trusted: We see the story through the eyes of Günter Guillaume (Aidan McArdle,) an East German sleeper agent reporting back to his handler (Ed Hughes.) Gossip is rife of a spy in the ranks, but the comically dull Guillaume goes unsuspected, gradually being given positions of trust next to Brandt.

Behind the scenes party-political machinations are a bit of a dry subject matter but if Frayn doesn't exactly turn it into rock'n'roll, he does come up with a storytelling rhythm that brings the intrigues to life, and Miller's production presents it slickly. But it's the second act that's the real highlight. Charting the Chancellor's downfall it focuses particularly on his relationship with Guillaume, the man he doesn't particularly like but ends up (to his cost) having to trust. As the truth about Guillaume starts to come out and enemies within Brandt's own party see it as a way to bring him down, one of the great ironies of the play is that the East German spy and the people he works for are in fact the ones truly on the West German Chancellor's side.

A further irony is, of course, that this paradoxically loyal traitor will be one of the main excuses (along with Brandt's prolific womanizing) to drive the man he idolises out of office. Democracy isn't an explosive night at the theatre but it's a steadily interesting one that seeks to establish Willy Brandt as the man who might not have achieved all he wanted, but set the ball rolling that would eventually knock the Berlin Wall down.

Democracy by Michael Frayn is booking until the 28th of July at the Old Vic.

Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes including interval.

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