Review: Democracy - Michael Frayn's spy thriller deserves better

By John Nathan, June 28, 2012

The Old Vic, London SE1

There is no better example of one man's mastery of the stage than the two plays recently revived at the Old Vic. While Noises Off (now in the West End) is by a comedy writer at the top of his game, Democracy – first seen in 2003 and which has here been imported from Sheffield Theatres - could only have been created by a fine political dramatist. It is amazing that they were written by the same man – Michael Frayn.

Democracy follows the fate of West Germany's popular left-wing Chancellor of the 1970s, Willy Brandt - possibly the only major German politician left unsullied by his country's Nazi past because he spent so much of it in exile. Gunter Guillaume was his faithful assistant during Brandt's time as Chancellor – and also the cause of his downfall when it was revealed that Guillaume was East Germany's top spy.

Frayn's eureka moment in writing the play must have been the decision to have Guillaume's Stasi controller, played by Ed Hughes, as a permanent, sinister on-stage presence. Except that in Paul Miller's workmanlike production, Hughes with his blonde wig and leather coat comes across more as 1970s parody than Stasi spook. And nor does a preening Patrick Drury convince as the baggy-eyed Brandt – or at least, nowhere near as much as Aidan McArdle convinces as the nervy Guillaume. More problematic still is that Miller generates almost no tension, vital in a play featuring a spy who lives in fear of being discovered.

True, there is plenty of thought-provoking stuff, particularly the unsettling portrait of a traitor who can so admire the man and the country he betrays. And there are moments of real power, none more so than the scene in which Brandt pays silent tribute to the Jews of the Warsaw ghetto. But Frayn's play deserves better.

Last updated: 3:23pm, June 28 2012