Written in 2003, Michael Frayn’s Democracy depicts the intriguing relationship that developed between two men, Willy Brandt, the West German Chancellor for much of the 1970s, and his assistant, Gunter Guillaume, who while seemingly devoted to his boss was later exposed as a Stasi double agent.
Though physically and politically they initially seem to be polar opposites, the two men are more alike than they first appear and the play explores the curious bond that builds between them over time. There is, of course, a broader metaphor at play here about Germany as a divided country – a land cleaved in two but still connected – but it’s the substance of the men’s relationship in which Frayn’s dense, layered play seems most interested, though in a kind of clinical and rather detached way.
Brandt is a charismatic leader who understands the potency of the big symbolic gesture, but he also has a tendency towards black moods, bouts of insecurity and is a notorious womaniser to boot. Guillaume is permanently rumpled and crumpled, something of a comedy figure, but someone who clearly excels at his job. But despite their superficial differences, the men have many things in common. Both Brandt and Guillaume were exiles, they were both also fatherless, and – perhaps as a result – very driven and committed. While his convictions never falter, Guillaume grows incredibly fond of the man he is spying on and Brandt comes to depend on Guillaume in more ways than one.
Paul Miller’s production was originally staged at Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre as part of their Michael Frayn season, alongside productions of Copenhagen and Benefactors, but it feels oddly remote on the Old Vic stage, marooned against the black, back wall. There’s a static quality to the piece and it doesn’t really hit its stride until the two men are united on a train touring the country and the relationship between them starts to evolve.
There’s a pleasing John le Carré-esque quality to the atmosphere evoked, all muted 1970s colours, secret dossiers, and intrigue, wreathed in cigarette smoke. But there’s something flat and inert to the staging, a lack of momentum – even when the characters are travelling by train this stillness prevails. Though the all-male ensemble cast do a good job of fleshing out the world of the play, the production is at its strongest when it’s just the two men together, on a family holiday in Norway.
Aidan McCardle is an endearing presence as the bushy-haired Guillaume, talkative in a nervous way; a figure one might so easily overlook and underestimate, the “hat stand in the corner” in his ill-fitting suit, with his shirt collar always a little askew. The collision between his political beliefs and his personal feelings is subtly but convincingly conveyed. Though Patrick Drury never quite comes across as the larger-than-life figure the other characters paint Brandt as, he, with equal subtly, conveys the divisions between Brandt the politician and Brandt the man. Ed Hughes, in the obligatory polo neck and leather jacket, provides a necessary textural and temperamental shift away from all those suits as Arno, Guillaume’s contact in the East.
The play is intellectually exciting and never less than engaging; the lines about the troublesome nature of coalitions have also acquired an unintended resonance. It’s easy to see why Miller opted for this stripped down style, foregrounding the text, but the human drama at the heart of the play gets a little lost against that vast, flat expanse of black.