The Theatreguide.London Review
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In the early 1970s, when Willy Brandt was Germany's first left-centre Chancellor, one of his closest personal aides, Gunter Guillaume, was an East German spy. Out of this bizarre fact - as someone says to Guillaume near the end of the play, 'You'll always be a paragraph in the chapter on Brandt' - Michael Frayn has fashioned a study in the ambiguities, masks and betrayals inherent in politics, at least in those that come under the heading of the play's title.
Unlike Frayn's last venture into history, Copenhagen, in which he tried to guess what really happened at a specific moment, this play is built not on mystery but on a growing awareness of ambiguity. Yes, the East Germans spied on Brandt, but not to undercut him. Sensing that he was their best chance for detente, they needed to know what was going on in order not to sabotage him accidentally - the play hints that at one point when he faced loss of power they actually bribed some West German politicians to support him.
Meanwhile. East-West mistrust and antagonism was nothing compared to the constant divisions withing Brandt's government, between ex-Communists and ex-Nazis, between Frankfort men and Berlin men, and between the ambitious and those just trying to hang on to the power they had. And Brandt, in Frayn's eyes, is an ambiguity unto himself - having travelled under several names in his lifetime, he is now an even greater mystery to those who work with him every day than to his supposed enemies.
All this leads to a fascinating set of character studies and way of understanding history, which director Michael Blakemore and his cast make the most of. Conleth Hill's Guillaume is more than a bit of a fool, a puppy dog equally eager to please both Brandt and his Communist controller, making it believable that he could work his way up from a glorified file clerk to Brandt's personal assistant, and that he could be so successful just because he seemed so harmless.
Roger Allam captures all of Brandt's contradictions - the unmatched political instincts alongside the inability to make hard decisions, the charisma as well as the moodiness - and suggests that at their core was a hollow man who could have so many identities because he had none.
What there isn't in this play is much in the way of plot. It is a foregone conclusion that Guillaume will eventually be caught and that Brandt will eventually be voted out, and Frayn's only stab at historical guesswork is that the two events really had nothing to do with each other.
In short, don't expect the puzzle and revelations of Copenhagen, but rather a bemused look at the very messy process that is democracy even at its most successful. And that, as it turns out, makes for good theatre.
APRIL 2004: The National Theatre's hit production of Michael Frayn's new play transfers to the West End with a couple of secondary cast changes and some subtle shifts in emphasis that change the play enough that even those who have seen it might want to see it again.
See our original review above for a description of the play. Simon Chandler now plays Horst Ehmke, the most loyal of Willy Brandt's disloyal (or only loyal as long as there was something in it for them) colleagues, and Michael Simkins comes to the role of Gunter Guillaume's East German handler, hinting that this shadowy apparatchik had a thoughtful side.
But the real change lies in the portrayals of the two central figures, and thus in the focus and balance of the play. As I noted in my first review, Conleth Hill originally played the spy as a puppy dog eager to please both his masters, but now he is giving us a more self-confident and controlled political agent. The characterisation still works, though it makes him somewhat less interesting as an imagined personality.
And that shifts our interest more toward the figure of Willy Brandt. Roger Allam is giving the same subtly nuanced performance he was giving at the start but, no longer overshadowed by the figure of the spy, it draws more of our attention as we realise that, even more than Guillaume, Brandt was used to living a double - or multi-faced - life.
As one who had travelled under so many pseudonyms in his life that he was no longer sure who he was, one whose normal operative mode ranged from indecisive at best to paralytically depressive at worst and yet who could make the most powerful and political-landscape-changing moves almost by instinct, Roger Allam's Brandt moves to the centre of the play now as both a moving and believable dramatic character and a fascinating guess at the reality.
Democracy remains one of the best political dramas in a long time, combining the tension of a dramatic thriller with a thought-provoking peep into the way things work behind the scenes.
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Review - Democracy - National / Wyndham's 2003