Theatre Review: Back-stabbing and intrigue in political thriller Democracy

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Rapture Theatre offers a Scottish debut of Michael Faryn’s political thriller Democracy.                                                 Credit: Infinite Blue Designs / James Couttes

Who can you trust? That’s the question on everyone’s lips in Michael Frayn’s political thriller Democracy. Based on true events during the Cold War, the play is about the relationship between East German Stasi spy Gunter Guillaume and West German Chancellor Willy Brandt and how the infiltration aids Brandt’s downfall after four years in elected office.

As the web of lies grows deeper, and the two become closer, Guillaume questions his loyalties between Brandt and his informant for spy ringleader Markus Wolf, Arno Kretschmann, who could be perceived as the Devil on Guillaume’s shoulder in a series of conversations behind frozen tableaus and soul-searching soliloquies.

Democracy has a rich British television drama cast including Liverpudlian Neil Caple (Brookside and The Bill) who is the protagonist Gunter Guiallaume, River City regulars including Sean Scanlan, Colin McCredie, and Stewart Porter and The Bill’s Michael Moreland as Arno.

The play was not penned or performed until 2003, approximately a decade after Brandt and Guillaume’s deaths in the early 1990s. It first opened at the National Theatre in London but my own insider information tells me that the Rapture Theatre group are the first company to perform the play north of the border during its 27 date tour of the Scottish mainland.

The plot itself took a short while to pick up, and only when Guillaume was thrown into the thick of the action, torn between two sides and trying to talk his way out of Brandt’s adviser’s suspicions, was suspense roused – and by the second half I was hooked.

I have to also applaud the Rapture Theatre’s visual effects. The first time the 10 characters were introduced there is a private-eye style black and white picture which flashes above the screen which until looking closely, I had mistaken for real pictures of the character’s counterparts.

There were also some haunting real-life pictures of post-World War Two disused concentration camps that made my skin prickle with uncomfortable reverence.

When I first read the plot summary, my initial thoughts – which stuck with me throughout the performance – were the similarities between this play and Channel 4’s drama Deutschland ’83 which aired earlier this year.

Perhaps without seeing and enjoying Deutschland ‘83, as a taster to Cold War spy thrillers, Democracy would not have gauged my interest as much as it did. However, the difference between the mediums was that the betrayal in Democracy had the theatrical air of Shakespearean political drama.

And after nearly 27 years since the fall of the Berlin wall, is Democracy still relevant? Yes, argues director Michael Emans in the programme notes, especially as we are experiencing political unease in light of Brexit.

I would recommend Democracy to anyone interested in history, politics past or present, or just up for a good spy thriller. 

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