Democracy, first staged in 2003, is Michael Frayn’s most recent play to feature in Sheffield Theatres’ season of his work, but you could be forgiven for mistaking it as one of the older state-of-the-nation pieces from last year’s David Hare retrospective. The nation under scrutiny, however, is not our own, but 1970s West Germany, under the leadership of Willy Brandt. Frayn uses political events as a backdrop, against which he explores the ambiguous relationship between Brandt and his devoted personal aide, Gunter Guillaume, who also happens to be an East German spy.
Whilst the reflective, intellectual quality of Frayn’s writing is a major boon to other plays, here it seems a little laboured. There is not nearly so much at stake as in Copenhagen, nor such well-developed characters as in Benefactors. The result is an interesting history lesson, but a rather cold drama. Brandt’s cabinet is filled with gruff men in grey suits. We are repeatedly told of the effect he has on the upturned faces of the women in the rapturous crowds he addresses, but they are noticeably absent from the stage.
Patrick Drury‘s performance does give us some idea of Brandt’s charisma and Aidan McCardle imbues Guillaume with the right degree of earnest dedication to both his political masters. Paul Miller’s direction and Simon Daw’s design are competent, but neither really provide the spark that might bring this play truly alive. The overall result is a production that is solid but uninspiring.
Democracy might be the weakest link in the chain, but the overall success of this ambitious season is undeniable and should be applauded.