Democracy by Michael Frayn
The Old Vic / Sheffield Theatres
29th June 2012
As part of the Michael Frayn season at The Old Vic, “Democracy” sucks its audience in and along at a rapid pace, providing an insightful (if not intentional) commentary on governmental coalition. The play focuses on the final years of the career of West German Chancellor Willy Brandt, and the infiltration of his inner circle by hostile espionage. Under the careful direction of Paul Miller, a wonderfully sharp and calm cast plough through the wordy text to reach the play’s somewhat predictable conclusion. We find it interesting, yes, but compelling, no, as ultimately we come away feeling that this was good rather than great.
Perhaps this is because of the safety of Miller’s direction. It can feel sometimes that the scenes are going at such a pace that the director has overcompensated for the danger of dry or stale scenes – so fast sometimes that it is difficult to register the names, positions and alliances of the characters, so important for the creation of Frayn’s political battleground. Where there is speed in speech, there is staticity in staging, and Simon Daw’s quietly beautiful set lends itself to more use than it is given.
That said, the prowess of the actors – particularly Aidan McArdle’s simultaneously dynamic and guilt-ridden Guillaume and Patrick Drury’s charismatic and compelling Brandt – makes the play well worth seeing. At moments when the pace slows enough for the audience to recognise and register the relationships between the leads – there is a scene in a Norwegian cottage that is truly extraordinary – we are compelled. A puff of atmospheric fog catches the audience by surprise later in the play, and there are audible gasps, but moments like these are dominated by other factors such as a veritable doppelgänger of Tom Hardy’s Ricki Tarr in “Tinker Tailer Soldier Spy”, which make the overwhelming atmosphere one of predictability. “Political thriller” becomes less potent when we can guess the ending by the interval.
One asks then, for justification of this play’s production – why now, why in this way? Can the programmers of the Old Vic have known that the coalition in the UK would be treated with such suspicion, as it now is, when the play was commissioned – had the votes even been counted? I agree that there is nothing wrong at all with doing a great play well with almost no political justification (though there are many that disagree with me), but in this case, some easy and safe decisions render “Democracy” reliant on its political message, which if there at all is not fully formed.