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Review Round-up: How did critics vote on Democracy?

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Michael Frayn's Democracy transferred to the Old Vic this week (20 June 2012, previews from 15 June) following its run at Sheffield Theatres.

This revival of Frayn’s thriller takes us into the true life world of political intrigue, espionage and betrayal. Set during the final months in office of the charismatic, nobel prize-winning West German Chancellor Willy Brandt, as suspicions of a Stasi spy infiltrating his precarious coalition government come to a head.

Featuring Andrew Bridgmont, David Cann, Patrick Drury, Richard Hope, William Hoyland, Ed Hughes, David Mallinson, Aidan McArdle, James Quinn and Rupert Vansittart, and directed by Paul Miller, Democracy runs until 28 July.

Michael Coveney

“Nearly ten years after its premiere at the National Theatre, Michael Frayn’s Democracy still impresses and moves me as one of the most enthralling plays about modern politics of the past 20 years… Paul Miller’s production for the Sheffield Crucible – where it opened in March – may not have the sleek, compelling authority of Michael Blakemore’s original staging, but it is lucidly laid out on the Old Vic stage and given an eerie layer of vocal enhancement that makes all the dialogue sound like private speech coming over as public. The play has the serpentine quality of a good thriller, especially in the first half, and has much in common, in terms of spirit and argument, with the recent movie of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. There’s only so much chit chat about the economy that you can absorb in one play, but Democracy has the brilliant knack of re-drafting every shimmy and shift in policy and politics as a personal and revelatory statement, a box on the ears or a stab in the heart.”

Nina Caplan
Time Out

“With skilful, if occasionally overwhelming intensity, Frayn peers into the German psyche, making full use of the parallels between Brandt and Guillaume, both fatherless and conflicted, and their divided nation, also orphaned by its violent loss of its recent past. Helming the production, Paul Miller has gone for a dark, spare set and minimalist direction, which gives the audience space to concentrate on all the talk… Democracy means listening to everyone, from master to mole. Yet the need for a messiah persists: everyone attends worshipfully to Brandt (Patrick Drury, monumental and charismatic), including his Judas, Guillaume, played with pitiful conviction by a sprightly Adrian McArdle. There is chemistry between the two actors, as befits this odd, distorted romance: like mistrustful lovers, each needs to know the other's worth. Brandt's suspicion is instinctive, Guillaume's purely professional: after all, his instructions are to try, by any underhand method available, to gauge whether Brandt is trustworthy. The brilliant, layered irony of their situation is not Frayn's invention, but he plays it like a banjo - or perhaps, like an electorate.”

Henry Hitchings
Evening Standard

Aidan McArdle’s Guillaume always has a furtive air as he purveys his peculiar brand of charm, while Patrick Drury gives a finely tuned account of Brandt. Around them there is neat work, with William Hoyland and David Mallinson making the keenest impression. The result is an uncompromisingly heavyweight piece. Frayn looks probingly into the knotty banality of politics. But the political narrative is only sometimes personally involving. While Frayn is psychologically astute, especially about the nature of betrayal, the play is too slow coming to the boil. The first 40 minutes or so are tepid, and Paul Miller’s production, which opened in Sheffield, is fluent yet too coolly disciplined. Although it contains dark wit and a couple of really potent scenes, Democracy often resembles a dry history lesson.”

Jane Shilling
Daily Telegraph

“In this production, originally seen at the Crucible Theatre and now at the Old Vic, Patrick Drury plays Willy Brandt as a remote, otherworldly presence, whose detachment from the ugly machinations of his colleagues (particularly the party Chairman, the pipe-smoking former Communist, Herbert Wehner, played with grim relish by William Hoyland) both protects and, in the end, condemns him. Aidan McArdle gives a beautifully detailed performance, drawing out the tragic-comedy of Guillaume’s rise from a minor functionary, despised by Brandt (who thinks he looks like a “greasy meatball”), to the trusted Leporello of Brandt’s drunken, womanising, depressive Don Giovanni. As a portrait of the messy expediency of realpolitik, Frayn’s play has an eerie ability to reflect the changing political climate. The travails of fragile coalition suffered by Brandt’s SDP have a curiously modern ring. Paul Miller’s direction makes as much as Frayn’s text will allow of the human relationship between Brandt and Guillaume, and the parallel relationship between Guillaume and his Stasi handler, Arno (Ed Hughes). But this is a play in which — as in real life — human emotions are subordinate to the crushing imperative of the political process.”

Libby Purves
The Times

“Ambiguity, political absurdity and tides of history feed Frayn’s imagined reality, but at the heart of it and of Paul Miller’s fine production from Sheffield is the developing relationship between the two men…Physically the casting of the principals is a joy: Patrick Drury as Brandt has charismatic stillness and striding purpose: when he steps out into the spotlight, forward on the thrust stage leaving the political mêlée behind, we too become the upturned, hopeful faces of a wounded, divided country anxious for its future. He is a giant, while Aidan McArdle’s Guillaume is a chipper, ingratiating little Pooter of a man, with his pert little knees-bend and his small-shopkeeper’s moustache…As with all political plays, there are modern resonances: a coalition government, financial stress, strikes and the ever-fresh question of where to locate the Left, somewhere between communism and social centrism…Those suited auxiliaries are strong too: Andrew Bridgmont as Wilke the loyal lawyer, William Hoyland saturnine and scornful as “Uncle Herbert” Wehner, David Mallinson amiably colourless as Helmut Schmidt. As Germany now stands again in a crucial role in Europe, it could not be a better moment to revive this lesson in history and humanity.”

- by Rosie Bannister

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