Writer: Michael Frayn
Director: Michael Emans
Reviewer: Dominic Corr
The Bundesadler; a Federal Eagle drapes the stage, a constant reminder of Europe’s all too recent history. Just as the overbearing black eagle serves to remind the audience of this past, Michael Frayn’s piece as a whole recapitulates a time many have omitted on these isles; post-war Germany. Adeptly constructed, if drawn out and disjointed, Democracy is an education as well as an evening of superb performances.
Twenty years prior to the reunification of Germany, Democracyis centred less around its namesake and more on the boundaries of trust. Deceit surrounds the newly elected chancellor Willy Brandt (Tom Hodgkins), not simply from his own political confidants and opponents, but also his closest companion. East German spy Gunter Guillaume (Neil Caple) is enlisted to supply the East with information and to whisper into the chancellor’s ear pushing their goals.
Treachery is thriving, stalking the hallways of the simple yet effective staging. A forced perspective of the Berlin Wall acts as a multitude of settings; the Chancellors office, his locomotive and the green landscape of Norway. A cruel subtlety is ever-present, the aforementioned imperial eagle painted into the set, yet never acknowledged. The barbed wire disfiguring the tops of the office or the secret door built into the wall allowing East German ‘weevils’ to hear and spy.
The bleakest of tales allow for the birth of proficient comedy. It cuts through the dark atmosphere, never insulting its historical basis but alleviating the tension. It’s within this humour that we find Frayn’s aptness as a playwright. Of course one cannot provide expert comedy through written word alone in the theatre, it has to be carried out by accomplished performers. Which is precisely what director Michael Emans’ run of the production accomplishes.
Aside from the sterling performances of Hodgkins and Caple, merit should be given to most of the remaining cast. Particularly Sean Scanlan and Jack Lord as ‘Uncle’ Herbert Wehner and succeeding Chancellor, Helmut Schmidt. There’s a slickness to the performances which pervades the line of outright villainy. It’s tangible, more disgustingly revolting than a cut-out antagonist; it feels truly political.
Levity aside, Democracy is by no means an easy narrative to maintain concentration, a passing familiarity with German history or Brandt would be effective, though not necessary before watching the production. Sluggish in segments there is a need to flesh out the skeletal genius of the writing with better pacing. Frayn demonstrates the complex and fascinating relationship shared between Brandt and Guillaume, more than that, it wonderfully encapsulates the dance of deceit in a Caesaresque manner.
In recent months the concept of Democracy has had its shortcomings. Regardless, productions such as Democracy ask us to look back to our own history, to learn from it, engage with it and not bury it away – instead witness it before us.
Runs until 1 October 2016 | Image: Contributed