Review: Democracy, Old Vic

“That’s why I love mushrooms – you pick them, pickle them and eat them”

There’s apparently no predicting the way in which theatrical transfers work (apart from if we’re talking about Chichester musicals…). I can’t imagine the logistics involved in securing the necessary financial support, keeping the cast onboard and finding the ideal venue but perhaps more significantly, I’ve no concept of how the conversations begin. In some cases it seems a no-brainer, as in the aforementioned big-hitting Chichester musicals and indeed plays; in others, it seems easily misjudged, cf Written on the Heart;  and then there’s the others, in which a perfect confluence of factors enable a well-received production to make the relocation.

It is probably the latter of these options in the case of Democracy, one of the three Michael Frayn plays that made up Sheffield Theatre’s celebration of his work earlier this year (Copenhagen and Benefactors were the others), which has now transferred to the Old Vic. On the face of it, it may not be the most appealing of prospects, a play based on real-life events in West German politics in the 1970s but what emerges is a sweeping spy thriller full of political intrigue and historical significance, which is all the more compelling for being true.  

West German Chancellor Willy Brandt won the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1971 for his efforts to achieve reconciliation between his country and those of the Soviet bloc but in 1973, his security forces received information that one of his closest personal assistants – Günter Guillaume – was in fact an East German spy and the eventual public revelation resulted in the end of his Chancellorship. Despite being hide-bound by history, Frayn cleverly suggests how such a turn of events might have come about with wit and lightness (for the most part) on the larger ideological level, but also brings a very human aspect to this tale of betrayal between two men between whom a strong relationship had formed.

As Brandt, Patrick Drury provides a marvellous central presence to the play, a man ground down by the responsibilities of innovative statehood and the trials of holding together an antagonistic ruling coalition at a time of economic crisis (ring any bells?!). He’s also suffering from the personal demons of sex and alcohol addiction and depression on the side, so the steadying presence of Guillaume, who insinuated his way as unobtrusively as he could into the inner circle of power. Aidan McArdle demonstrates this superbly by turning himself into a super administrator, a trusty sidekick whose loyalties grow so strong that when the final axe falls, he is truly conflicted.

Simon Daw’s open, diamond-based design breathes a spare modernity into the Old Vic’s auditorium which is complemented beautifully by Mark Doubleday’s often stark lighting.  This simplicity allows Paul Miller to keep the production tightly focused and the clean lines mean it often looks most striking, even with something as simple as the whole cast coming to a standstill, scattered across the stage. And it is a strong ensemble too: Richard Hope’s flustered chief of staff Ehmke, William Hoyland’s Machiavellian rival Wehner, David Mallinson’s eventual successor Schmidt, all excel and their combined polyester-suited presence (aside from Ed Hughes in the production’s one polo neck as the East German handler). Intelligent, quality drama, well worth the transfer.

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes (with interval)
Photo: Tristram Kenton

Programme cost: £4
Booking until 28th July

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