Democracy, the third and final play in Sheffield Theatres' Michael Frayn season, explores the rise and fall of 1960s/70s West German Chancellor Willy Brandt (Patrick Drury) and particularly focuses on his relationship with Günther Guillaume (Aidan McArdle), the East German spy who worked as his personal assistant, and the machinations of both East and West German politics at the time. Like the other plays in the Frayn season, this takes a subject that seems perhaps dense and inaccessible and makes it relevant and engaging for the audience.
When the play debuted in 2003, much was made of parallels between Brandt's depiction - a charismatic leader of a left-wing party used to being in opposition, envied by 'heir apparent' Helmut Schmidt - and the New Labour government at the time. Whilst there is still a lot of pleasure to be had for the audience in jokes about the left's apparently declining commitment to socialism and the realisation that a leader who was once heralded as a saviour might prove to be less than that, contemporary audiences such as the one in the Crucible last night are likely to find even more humour in Frayn's jokes about coalition governments and the role of the liberals - hard to believe the play is almost a decade old given how relevant some of these jokes seem - and director Paul Miller and the ten-strong cast certainly make the most of these moments.
The key figure for audience identification is Aidan McArdle's Guillaume. He frequently breaks the fourth wall and addresses the audience directly, and we see his character rushing from discussions with the West German political elite, and his East German contact Arno Kretschmann (Ed Hughes). He introduces each of the other characters as they appear and acts as a narrator for much of the action, contextualising events and explaining his own conflicts. It's a charismatic and lively performance - but whenever he leaves the stage, the action tends to sag a little - the characters of the politicians (particularly some of the supporting characters) are not as well-rounded or engaging as Guillame and there is less sense of audience investment.
Simon Daw's set design maintains the high standard the Crucible has set for itself, with the rolling train carriage set working particularly well. Mark Doubleday's lighting design is incredibly effective, providing moments of both comedy and drama such as the stark moment when Guillame is arrested, or more humorous allusions to St Paul's Damascus Road conversion. The all-male cast is strong, with solid lead performances from McArdle and Patrick Drury (as Brandt) - although James Quinn's bodyguard-cum-barkeeper Ulrich Bauhaus almost steals the show. However, there were one or two places where dialogue stuttered or was a little too fast or quiet for audiences to fully grasp what was said.
The first act suffered a little from there being too much in the way of contextualising and exposition - at the heart of the play are the relationships between the characters and the different machinations they are involved in, and when these become the focus of the action and dialogue, the play becomes much more interesting.
As with the other plays in the season (Copenhagen, which recently ended its run in the Lyceum, and Benefactors, still playing in the Crucible Studio), this production of Democracy shows Frayn's skill as a playwright who can highlight the human dilemmas in seemingly complex subjects and bring them to life with clarity and wit.
Democracy is at the Crucible, Sheffield until March 31st.