First published in The Times, Saturday September 10 2016
Michael Frayn’s multi-award-winning play is ostensibly about the “Guillaume affair” that led to the political demise of Chancellor Willy Brandt of West Germany in 1974. It is also a meaty history lesson on a fascinating chapter in European history and the first moves towards rapprochement between the Eastern and Western blocs. On its debut in 2003, Frayn’s exploration of the complexities and seeming contradictions of Brandt’s regime was also viewed as an allegory of the pragmatism and triangulation of the New Labour era.
It takes an exceptional lightness of touch to successfully reconcile the mix of human drama and historical research in this play, but from the outset, the director Michael Emans makes heavy weather of his production for Rapture Theatre. By the end of the nearly three-hour running time the overriding response to all the personal and political intrigue is a heartfelt “so what?”
While it could never be said of Frayn that he wears his learning lightly, Emans makes little attempt to open out some of the play’s denser expositional passages. The opening scenes in particular feel like a series of mini-lectures, delivered by a wall of interchangeable male actors in grey suits. A screen placed above Richard Evans’s Berlin Wall-inspired set, onto which key players’ names and mug shots are projected, at least prevents disorientation.
It takes a long time in Emans’s production for the central relationship to emerge between Brandt (Tom Hodgkins) and Günther Guillaume (Neil Caple), the Chancellor’s secretary, who was later revealed to be an intelligence agent for the Stasi. The developing bond between these two men illuminates the major theme of Frayn’s play, namely that ideological aims are never entirely pure or immune to corruption. Yet both of these performances are so insipid that we struggle to comprehend how these men would became so enamoured of one another that they would risk such fundamental compromise.
It is possible that the show will better find its feet as it embarks on its Scotland-wide tour (some members of the ten-strong ensemble seemed under-rehearsed on opening night in Glasgow). With so little variety of pace and tone, however, Emans’s production is currently more slog than brainy entertainment. When at one point Caple’s Guillaume compares the intricate workings of parliamentary democracy to the edge-of-your-seat excitement of a football match, the only possible reaction is one of bemusement.
Box office: 0844 871 7647, to Sep 10; touring to Oct 12. Rapturetheatre.co.uk