Paul Miller’s production of Democracy had a lot to live up to following the success of Michael Blakemore’s award-winning production at the National Theatre in 2003 and Lindsay Posner’s Olivier Award nominated production of Michael Frayn’s altogether different Noises Off, which is currently playing in the West End.
Unlike Frayn’s laugh-out-loud comedy, there isn’t a can of sardines in sight – though there are a few jars of pickled mushrooms – but that’s not to say Democracy is all political policies and complex coalitions. It is peppered with sparks of humour and awash with charismatic characters, making it an accessible and enlightening piece of theatre.
Despite its title, there isn’t an awful lot of democracy to be found in this factual thriller. Set in 1969, Democracy presents a divided nation, as the people of West Germany struggle to relate to their Eastern neighbours. Elected as Chancellor of West Germany, Willy Brandt is settling into office, but so too is a Stasi mole sent from the other side to spy on him. As Günther Guillaume tunnels his way further into the government, Brandt must pay the price for trusting such an intruder.
For all his spying and deceiving, Günther is probably the most likeable of the play’s characters, stealing the hearts of the audience as he does those of the government officials. Aidan McArdle channels a great deal of charm and wit into the efficient and loveable personal aide whose presence cuts through the politicians’ harsh exteriors, exposing their personal relationships as well as their political ones.
McCardle is well supported by Patrick Drury as the loved and respected Brandt whose political address is delivered with all the power of an assured ruler and whose silent gestures resonate just as strongly. Richard Hope’s all too trusting Horst Ehmke, William Hoyland’s pipe-puffing Herbert Wehner and David Mallinson’s gesticulating Helmut Schmidt all add to the strength of the captivating cast, while Ben and Max Ringham’s evocative sound design adds a haunting atmosphere to Simon Daw’s dark office-based set.
Like the divided German nation around which Frayn’s play is centred, there is a certain duality in the way the story unfolds, interspersing the characters’ dialogue with compelling and often witty storytelling. McArdle’s central performance as Günther acts as the pivot, as he flits between his observations of West German politics and his discreet exchanges with the ominous East German Arno Kretschmann, who is played in a somewhat ghostly fashion by Ed Hughes.
While its title may not evoke the most exciting impression, for those wanting to escape the current hype of Euro 2012, take some advice from the endearing Günther: “never mind football, try parliamentary democracy.”