Writer: Michael Frayn
Director: Michael Emans
Reviewer: Harriet Brace
A subtle, creeping thriller about the thin line between foes and allies, Democracy is several cleverly-crafted plays in one.
From award-winning writer Michael Frayn, best known for his 1982 comedy Noises Off, the play follows the political rise and fall of Chancellor Willy Brandt and his cabinet colleagues as they attempt to steer Germany towards peace and progress – in an age where the country is both physically and ideologically divided.
The production is fraught with political intrigue, but the dark humour that comes with ambitions unmet, and betrayals of trust from sharing gossip to spy games, add valuable layers to the compelling tale.
The back and forth between the cast of just 10 men is the play’s crowning glory. Delicious moments of Machiavellian contempt, particularly from calculating ‘Uncle’ Herbert Whener (Sean Scanlan), are balanced by emotive admissions about family, admiration and oppression from leads Tom Hodgkins as Chancellor Brandt and Neil Caple as his conflicted PA Gunter Guillaume.
Alongside political rivalry and changing allegiances is an insightful spy thriller that reveals not just the undercover excitement of espionage but also digs into the complex, often not chosen, motivations and conflictions of the spy himself.
Quietly horrifying truths about ordinary German lives under Hitler punctuate Frayn’s dialogue – including revelations about Hitler Youth membership, parental political affiliations, and the notion of rebuilding a nation fresh from atrocity – reminding the viewer of how uncomfortably recently the political atmosphere in which his play is set was the reality.
Meanwhile, the set of stark, unfurnished space within drab beige walls perfectly reinforces the transience of trust, showing up shadows as players seen and unseen gather their secrets and disappear.
However, quips and comedy from wannabe Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher (Stewart Porter) are delightfully unexpected and gratefully received amid some of the play’s more bleak moments, while the second-chair frustrations of party depute Helmut Schmidt (Jack Lord) also get some laughs of knowing recognition.
It must be said that if you’re not already a keen theatregoer, a historical play with such epic moral proportions and without the high-tech magic of cinematic spy tales might not be for you. As a full-on two-act play it’s certainly not one to simply dip a toe into.
But if you’re inclined to enjoy top-notch performances from some of the country’s most talented and varied actors – not to mention a critically acclaimed writer – give this hauntingly intelligent production a go.
Runs until 10 September 2016 | Image: Contributed