“Democracy” by Michael Frayn

at the Old Vic Theatre, Wednesday 25th July 2012

History, supposedly, died at the fall of the USSR and the reunification of Germany. If there’s anything the ideological discussions and revolutions of the past few years have taught us, however, (and let’s be honest, some idiots haven’t learnt enough from these events), it’s that history is far from over. The ideas presented in Paul Miller’s production of Michael Frayn’s Democracy, though set before the fall of the Berlin Wall, demonstrate to audiences in 2012 that the debates which began in 70s Europe are far from over.

There is something mildly Shakespearean about Frayn’s 2003 play; an historical era is used to reflect a contemporary one, the play spans vastly over time and space, and the language has a poetic rhythm to it, elevating the central characters. But more than all this, we are treated to not one, but two tragic heroes. The Chancellor Willy Brandt and his aide Gunter Guillaume both fit into the tragic mould, for they each believe they are doing what they believe to be right even though everything around the pair conspires against them. Miller’s production is presented in such a way which mimics this epic quality, playing the text at breakneck speed and using little more than the characters and words to demonstrate time and place.

References to coalition politics within the play naturally assume a relevance, but it is particularly the themes surrounding the cult of personality and backhanded politics which are most intriguing. Politics has always fetishised personalities, but it is only since the dawn of photography and subsequently television that leaders have become chosen for who they are rather than what they do. Willy Brandt sits on the boundary, keen to make a genuine difference to the lives of his citizens but fully aware that in the world of politics, the man with the camera is king. Some of the most memorable moments in Democracy are (smartly), those which recreate infamous images of Brandt whilst his advisers watch in amazement.

The underhand politics which occur, epitomised by Helmut Schmidt and Herbert Wehner (the slimy and stern David Mallinson and William Hoyland), is countered by the Shakespearean semi-soliliquies given to Brandt and Guillaume. They reject the party politics of those around them in favour of a more ideological, hopeful agenda, which Frayn demonstrates is possible even though the pair have human flaws. Craftily, the two spies of the piece – Guillaume and Arno Kretschmann (marvelously underplayed by Ed Hughes) – are the two who seem most open to the audience; though they are working behind others’ backs, at least they have nothing to hide from us. That is far from the truth in the case of Brandt’s sinister advisers.

Aidan McArdle’s performance as Guillaume is gloriously comic, allowing his humanity and awe to shine through. His stocky viciousness is contrasted beautifully with Patrick Drury’s towering, gentle Brandt; and though they rarely look into one another’s eyes, the connection clearly runs deep. Miller’s smart staging uses Simon Daw’s stylish design to high effect; though only one entrance exists, characters file in and out without pause, and an almost stylised, methodical way of moving around the stage is broken by various characters at key moments. Mark Doubleday’s lighting is ever-shifting, just like the playing spaces on which Brandt and his government act.

Democracy shows Michael Frayn at the height of his powers as a dramatist, and manages to mingle entertainment, drama and political comment to startling effect. Miller’s production offers an economically created world and is balanced in its presentation of these historical figures. And, though the realisation of this world is complete and exists in isolation, it is its relation to today’s political world which makes it so compelling.

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