Michael Frayn's political drama is about as emotionally bloodless as it gets, often descending into the dull - a strong production and some great performances add a little grit, but more often than not Democracy fails to be dramatic at all.
The story of Willy Brandt is a fascinating one - the 'great reformer' is idolised throughout Germany for starting the process of reunification, although his fall from grace is often glossed over; betrayed by his closest confidant, Guenther Guillaume, who turned out to be an East German spy, Brandt used the opportunity to accept his waning political power and resign. In Frayn's play, Guillaume is the lead, telling Brandt's story from his perspective, delivering insights into a coalition government suffering from internal strife during a time of economic hardship - sounds particularly timely, doesn't it?
As smoke wafts all over the stage (this was clearly a time when smoking in cabinet rooms was not only allowed but part of the job description), Frayn's conversation between Guillaume and his handler, Kretschmann, happens front and centre and forms the basis of this story - everything we hear is from Guillaume's perspective, at first ignored, then slowly drawn into Brandt's inner circle. Around him are arrayed the great men in the corridors of power, and we witness the machinations of the German post-war political machine - and there are some delicious insights, including the odd alliance between ex-Nazi Helmut Schmidt, who went on to succeed Brandt, and Social-Democrat chairman and ex-Communist Herbert Wehner. Frayn beautifully captures the dichotomy that dominated West German politics for years - that everyone's past had to be ignored, and yet influenced every decision that they made.
However, it's all so dry - there's no passion in what's being said; all of these grim old men grumbling their way through the political machine without any glee at their successes or anger in their failures. The only character who shows any emotion at all is Guillaume, and Aidan McArdle plays him partly as a rambunctious child and partly a sly little weasel of a man - it's a pleasant performance, even if it doesn't fit the rest of the cast. The real problem here, though, is Patrick Drury's Willy Brandt, famously charming but played as dull as ditchwater here. Drury seems to confuse Brandt's infamous stillness with inaction - Brandt always had a cocky smile, always seemed to know a little better, while Drury just seems still, quiet and, to be honest, a little lost, his speeches and moments in the spotlight not confident enough and underplayed.
And without a strong lead, Frayn's tale of political intrigue loses all of its energy. The first half, in particular, drags, and the whole thing feels more like a history lesson and less like a dramatic text. It seems inevitable that this production will be compared to recent spy drama Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (it covers quite similar ground, and Ed Hughes couldn't look more like an East German spy with his floppy hair, brown leather jacket and bell-bottoms) and in comparison, Democracy looks very weak indeed. There're no female characters, no characters under the age of 30, and no scenes that look into anyone's personal life in any detail - it's all alluded to, suggested but not followed up, and all played through the prism of Guillaume explaining it to Kretschmann, so any dramatic tension is lost as well.
It does get more dramatic towards the middle of the second act, when Guillaume's position is revealed, but that hardly makes up for the preceding hour. It feels old-fashioned to have a play that's quite so inhuman, with little to no interest in the people being displayed over the politics. There are some strong performances from supporting actors, and it looks gorgeous, but this ends up feeling more like a missed opportunity than a worthy production.
Democracy takes us into a world of political intrigue, espionage and betrayal . Based on real life events during the final months in office of the charismatic West German Chancellor Willy Brandt, this political tale unfolds as suspicions rise of a Stasi spy infiltrating his inner circle. Tensions mount as Brandt's precarious coalition government is pushed to its limits. This timely revival of Michael Frayn's stylish and sharp-witted thriller comes to The Old Vic after its highly acclaimed run at Sheffield Theatres.Winner the Evening Standard Award and Critics' Circle Best Play awards, Democracy is a thrilling portrayal of a political visionary who changed the face of German politics.
Old Vic TheatreThe Cut
London Greater London United Kingdom SE1 8NB
Patrick Drury as Willy Brandt and Aidan McArdle as Gunter Guillaume in Democracy. © Tristram Kenton
Richard Hope as Horst Ehmke and the cast of Democracy. © Tristram Kenton
Patrick Drury as Willy Brandt in Democracy. © Tristram Kenton