There is surely a certain irony that the culture secretary’s announcement of a one-off grant of £5m to the Old Vic to set up an endowment fund to secure the venue’s future as a producing house should have come in the same week that it has, again, been a receiving house. Its current transfer for Sheffield’s production of Michael Frayn’s Democracy, first seen at the Crucible as part of its Frayn season earlier this year, is to be followed moreover by a London season for Chichester’s current production of Kiss Me, Kate.
Patrick Drury (Willy Brandt) and Aidan McArdle (Gunter Guillaume) in Democracy at the Old Vic, London Photo: Tristram Kenton
For the Old Vic, though, Democracy at least acts as a neat companion piece to its recent production of Frayn’s Noises Off that transferred successfully to the West End, showing the yin and yang of one of our most brainy playwrights. He is equally adept at the outright hilarious, meticulously constructed comedy of a theatrical farce as he is in laying out the more serious farce of coalition politics in late 1960s/early 1970s western Germany.
Though the play’s exterior packaging threatens to be a rather daunting, dry account of the behind-the-scenes machinations of a German chancellor trying to run a government in difficult times, at the play’s centre is something far more personal and involving.
That’s the absorbing story of the terrible betrayal of trust that occurs between the German chancellor of the time, Willy Brandt, and his chief lieutenant Gunter Guillaume, who was subsequently revealed to be an East German Stasi spy.
The two great actors of the National Theatre’s original 2003 production - Roger Allam and Conleth Hill - have been replaced by two good ones, Patrick Drury and Aidan McArdle respectively and respectably. They inevitably have tough acts and tougher actors to follow, but if neither can make as strong a mark, Paul Miller’s production brings a bare-bones theatricality to the play that, by bringing the action forward to the apron of the Old Vic’s stage, succeeds in establishing a greater intimacy in this big theatre.
It’s also terrific to see such a fine regional production getting an extended London life that’s not star-driven but is definitely actor-led.