Seen at Theatre Royal, Glasgow
Touring until October 12
Pitlochry Festival Theatre
Various dates until October 14
Reviewed by Mark Brown
It is ironic that Michael Frayn, the writer behind the metatheatrical farce Noises Off, should also be the author of the Cold War drama Democracy. The latter speaks more to Frayn as a novelist with an interest in espionage than as a playwright with an understanding of the workings of theatre.
A play in which nine West German men in suits (one of whom is an East German spy) are shadowed by an East German agent in civvies, it is a curious choice for Glasgow-based Rapture Theatre’s latest touring production. Telling the story of the rise and fall of West German statesman Willy Brandt (who was, ultimately, brought down by the news that one of his closest aides, Gunter Guillaume, was spying for the Stalinist regime in East Berlin) it is, in the hands of director Michael Emans, a depressingly dull evening’s theatre.
The blame for this dreariness lies partly in the play itself. Unlike Frayn’s Copenhagen (which is based upon the 1941 meeting between the nuclear physicists Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg), Democracy’s fascination with a historical moment is not joined to a truly dramatic conversation.
Rather, Frayn’s play (which, it must be said, was met with some critical acclaim in London and New York in 2003 and 2004) is often one in which narration and the supplying of historical facts masquerade as dialogue. The conversations between Guillaume and his East German handler Arno Kretschmann are particularly egregious in this regard, as the latter imparts the kind of information that could only be intended for those who require to be filled-in on the background to the Cold War conflict between West and East Germany.
However, if the drama makes one wonder why Frayn didn’t write a novel on the Brandt/Guillaume affair instead, Emans’s decidedly static and unimaginative production does itself no favours. The cast (some of whom were occasionally tripping over lines on Tuesday night) are moved around the stage like so many chess pieces.
Even at their best (Tom Hodgkins’s kingly-but-vulnerable Brandt, Neil Caple’s Guillaume, a man of increasingly torn loyalties) the performances are professional, but uninspired. There’s also a distinct lack of inspiration in Richard Evans’s set, which combines the windows of an office with the grey cement and barbed wire of the Berlin Wall.
It is a damning indictment of this production that it relies for its only truly emotive moment on a short blast of Henryk Gorecki’s beautiful Third Symphony. Otherwise, it is, sad to say, an almost interminable three hours in the theatre.
From a play that might have been more successful as a novel to a famous novel that has been adapted as a play. Stephen Jeffreys’s stage version of Dickens’s Hard Times is the latest, and the last, play in Pitlochry Festival Theatre’s 2016 summer season.
Jeffreys is the author of The Libertine, the excellent play about the famously rakish poet John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester (which Dominic Hill staged successfully at the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow two years ago). As such, one might have hoped for a more inventive approach to the task of transforming a prose fiction into a play.
One wonders why – apart from the obvious commercial appeal of a much-loved title – adaptations of novels are so often preferred to plays. I confess, whenever an actor breaks from character and steps forward to narrate, my heart sinks.
It is disappointing to see an accomplished dramatist such as Jeffreys succumb to such a conventional mode of adaptation. That said, director Clare Prenton and her fine cast do bring abundant life to Dickens’s tale of class, education and labour in the fictional Lancashire conurbation of Coketown.
Dickens’s had a penchant for meaningful caricature, which Dougal Lee and Greg Powrie deliver in the dubious forms of the joyless teacher-turned-politician Thomas Gradgrind and the blunt, self-important industrialist Josiah Bounderby. Hannah Howie has a more nuanced character in Gradgrind’s intelligent, soul-crushed daughter Louisa, and she gives an appropriately subtle and moving performance.
Spare a thought for Mark Elstob (an actor born to perform the upper class cads penned by Oscar Wilde and Noel Coward) who is required to play on both sides of the class divide. Gamefully, he takes on both the ill-fated, politically confused factory worker Stephen Blackpool and the decadent playboy Harthouse; although, in truth, he seems far more comfortable in the latter role.
Prenton’s production manages to build up some momentum, despite the somewhat stop-start structure of Jeffreys’s script. This is down, in no small measure, to Becky Minto’s minimalist set; a lovely creation, with a series of Victorian pillars and a simple brick wall, which is almost undone by the wheeling around of cumbersome and superfluous panels.
An uneven staging of Dickens’s story, then, but a considerably more theatrical experience than Rapture’s latest offering.
For tour dates for Democracy, visit: rapturetheatre.co.uk
These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on September 11, 2016
© Mark Brown