Reviewing Democracy, quite literally

What is democracy? Literally ‘power by the many’, and yet although Michael Frayn’s ‘Democracy’ was, for the most part, excellent, it’s hardly what the majority would have wanted. The most important thing to acknowledge about this play is that it is not, alas, another ‘Noises Off’. Same writer, yes. Same venue, yes. But that is where the similarity ends. While ‘Noises Off’ was almost painful laugh after laugh after laugh, ‘Democracy’ was instead a very serious play with laughs thrown in every now and then. The main character, Gunter Guillaume, we are told ‘looks like the manager of a pornographic bookshop’. These jokes are funny, but it’s not quite enough to sustain interest in the rest of the show. I’m not sure what exactly was missing, but I know that beautiful sound, lighting and great actors (omitting our ‘cast as a spy because he looks like a spy’ man Arno Kretschmann) were not quite enough. Something poignant about the stark open stage with so much space allowed above the actors, the lack of women and the lack of movement meant that it felt as if the play was incomplete. It was a slick production but it felt like a radio play put onto stage. There was a discontinuity between the words and the visuals.
Essentially ‘The Lives of Others’ in reverse, with less action and more politics, ‘Democracy’ borders being a historical play, and a current comment on the coalition without ever quite making a decision. If a play is as strong as its weakest member, it is a spy who seems to have been cast purely because someone in an audition room thought once, ‘he looks like a German post-war spy’. If a play is only as weak as its strongest member, it is an inspiring politician, Willy Brandt, (although, alas the W is pronounced ‘V’, no cheap laughs here).  who – partially through excellent acting and partially through sophisticated audio techniques makes the whole audience hold their breath as he speaks.
Frayn is a victim of his own success – in the post ‘Noises Off’ Old Vic, he does not quite make it. In the words of a cynical politician from the play ‘success means you actually have to do something’. Frayn has done something, but not quite enough.


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