The Internet Theater Magazine of Reviews, Features, Annotated Listings


SEARCH CurtainUp



Etcetera and
Short Term Listings



LA/San Diego






Free Updates
NYC Weather
A CurtainUp Review

Original London Production Review by Lizzie Loveridge
Follow-Up Review at London's Wyndham's by Brian Clover

Reader Letter Regarding James Naughton's "one-kneed" Portrayal

Democracy on Broadway

Richard Thomas &  James Naughton
Richard Thomas & James Naughton (Photo: Don Perdue )
Just as our own democracy has gone through one its ugliest political power struggles, Michael Frayn's play taking us back to another political era and arena has arrived in New York. The play has already been given the London critics' seal of approval -- with both of CurtainUp's London critics registering their opinions.

While the New York production is again in the capable hands of Michael Blakemore, and with the same design team, the two key questions are: 1. Will American audiences be as smitten with this drama by the always intellectually challenging Michael Frayn? 2. Will the American cast, especially James Naughton as Willy Brandt and Richard Thomas as Günter Guillaume, be able to play these Germans as convincingly as the London actors did?

I wrote the above when I posted the Broadway production notes and the two London reviews to give readers who want to know what to expect, a chance to know more about the play before buying their tickets. Now that I've seen the American production, I find the answer to the first question can be found in an exchange between Willy Brandt and Günter Guillaume. Guillaume, who's been given a job in the administration to represent "the voice of the man in the street" amidst the establishment's politicians and professors is asked whether the West German Government can trust its "new friends" in the Eastern sector. Guillaume's response is an open-ended "Half of me wants to say one thing. Half of me wants to say another."

Half of me wants to believe that American audiences will be genuinely smitten with Frayn's latest intellectual thriller and not see it merely to be in the culturally correct snob loop. Half of me also wants to believe that enough people unfamiliar with the political specifics covered will be able to enjoy it as the political thriller it is , and appreciate this biting drama enough to accept the talkiness. And yes it IS talky!

The contemporary echoes vis-a-vis our own body politic should go a long way towards making Democracy resonate with audiences at the Brooks Atkinson. Besides characters for whom it's not hard to find counterparts commented on by CurtainUp's Brian Clover (the gifted leader damaged by his sexually voracity; the bland leader who seems to believe his own vapid, sonorous slogans; the fixer who bribes, bullies and blackmails behind the scenes; the loyal deputy whose heart stops when the chalice of power is offered, then whisked away from his lips; the intelligence services which are anything but intelligent), there are lines like Herbert Wehner post election despair about "another four years of Willy" which set of peals of ironic laughter among disappointed Kerry voters -- also Helmut Schmidt's "What's happening to this government? We casually launch into wild schemes without any proper consultation. We take on new commitments without any idea how they're going to be funded."

As for the American Brandt and Guillaume, the good news first. Richard Thomas, is clearly a different choice from the London mole in the Schaumburg mansion (described by Michael Cumpsty as Arno Kretschmann, Guillaume's handler as "a nineteenth-century ironmaster's dream of the aristocratic life" with "ghosts From the Kaiser's time, from the Nazis. From the Occupation."). Thomas insinuates himself with modest charm (assuring Kretschmann that he's "the hatstand in the corner "), and fascinates with his devotion to his Eastern and Western chiefs. Unfortunately, the same can't be said for James Naughton's Brandt. Since Frayn puts some of Brandt's actual words into his mouth, there are times when we do get a sense of the man's charisma. Naughton is a pro with considerable charm but he seems too homogenized for this role, especially during the first act. He portrays Brandt's indecisiveness, bouts with depression and compulsive womanizing in such a controlled manner that he seems in need of one of those stomach pain relieving pills for which he's been a spokesperson all over the small screen.

Despite failing to replicate that special something for the Brandt role, Mr. Blakemore has assembled some fine actors to round out the ensemble. Michael Cumpsty, who was outstanding in Copenhagen (Review) delivers another first-rate performance as the Stasi spymaster who hovers around the edges of the West Berlin power group's activities. There were times I found myself wondering how this would play with Cumpsty and Naughton exchanging roles.

Standing out from the look-alike "Suits" is Robert Prosky who perfectly captures the crafty adaptability of the seasoned political pro, Herbert Wehner. With Twelve Angry Men (Review), another large all-male cast show currently on Broadway, it's interesting to note that Prosky appears in that as the voiceover of the judge. The man who seems to fit a thousand roles, Lee Wilkof adeptly turns Günther Nollon into every country's over-eager, anything goes security chief.

Blakemore's enormously theatrical staging goes far to make the rise and fall of a dead foreign politician's administration less remote and dry. And if you play attention to the words, so does Michael Frayn's dialogue which Lizzie Loveridge so aptly described as a quotable treasure trove!

Letter Regarding James Naughton's "one-kneed" Portrayal
 Willy Brandt
Willy Brandt kneeling at Warsaw War Memorial
A Reader Letter Regarding James Naughton's "one-kneed" December 25, 2004. You describe James Naughton's Willy Brandt as "too homogenized." I agree. He fails to portray the passion the man was capable of. Naughton didn't even make much of his famous real life scene at the Warsaw War Memorial ceremony. As you can see from the picture I found in a free to the public dictionary on line, the real Brandt dropped all the way down, on both knees. Naughton's half a kneel version came across as half-hearted. True of too much of his performance!

I know this is fiction and most people wouldn't remember the real thing. Who knows, maybe if fiction and fact were reversed, and the real Brandt had dropped to one knee and Naughton had dropped way down, people would have accused him of being melodramatic. Since they say a picture is worth a thousand words, I attach a copy of the picture I mentioned. -- Janet Y., visitor from Frankfurt, Germany.

A Postscript: And here's an e-mail CurtainUp received on January 17th from Pierre Schori, the former Swedish UN Ambassador and current visiting professor at Adelphi University, New York who wrote a letter to director Blakemore and playwright Frayn also questioning the one-kneed portrayal in the New York production:

Theatre friends,
It may interest you that I just saw the Swedish version of Democracy in Stockholm, a better play in many respects. Obviously Brandt was much more "Brandt-like", speaking both Swedish and Norwegian in the play as in life; also the actor was almost his physical twin. But above all, the director had got the knee-scene right. Probably because most adult Swedes and Europeans remember the actual event or the picture of it.
Best regards, Pierre

And a postscript to the above postscript -- this one from our London critic whose review of the London production (which follows the production notes) made no reference to the kneeling scene. As Lizzie wrote after reading these e-mails:
" I can't remember if he dropped to one knee or two. Does it really matter? Allam was very convincing as Brandt and so no-one looked for --or commented on -- any inaccuracies but just accepted the actor's perceptive performance."

Written by Michael Frayn
Directed by Michael Blakemore
Cast: James Naughton (Willy Brandt) & Richard Thomas (Günter Guillaume); with Terry Beaver (Reinhard Wilke), Michael Cumpsty (Arno Kretschmann), John Dossett (Helmut Schmidt), Julian Gamble (Ulrich Bauhaus), John Christopher Jones (Hans-Dietrich Genscher), Richard Masur (Horst Ehmke), Robert Prosky (Herbert Wehner), Lee Wilkof (Günther Nollau).
Set Design: Peter J. Davison
Costume Design: Sue Wilmington
Lighting Design: Mark Henderson
Sound Design: Neil Alexander.
Running time: Approx. 2 1/2 hours with an intermission
National Theatre of Great Britain at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, 256 West 47th Street, 212/ 307-4100
Tuesday through Saturday at 8:00 PM, with matinees Wednesday and Saturday at 2:00 PM, Sunday at 3:00 PM
From 11/02/04; opening 11/18/04. Closing performance, 4/17/05
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on December 1st performance

Original Review at by Lizzie Loveridge

Three political parties, in and out of bed with each other like drunken intellectuals, fifteen warring cabinet ministers, and sixty million separate egos. All making deals with each other and breaking them. All looking round at every moment to see the expression on everyone else's face. All trying to guess which way everyone else will jump. All out for themselves and all totally dependent on everyone else. Not one Germany. Sixty million separate Germanies.
--- Arno Kretschmann
Conleth Hill as Günter Guillaume and Roger Allam as Willy Brandt
(Photo: Conrad Blakemore)
With the same pedigree as the multi award winning Copenhagen, comes Democracy, Michael Frayn's new play about post war Germany, directed by Michael Blakemore. As with Copenhagen, Frayn has filled out the known facts about real people. Unlike Copenhagen, when a subsequent disclosure from a relative of one of the characters discredited some of what he had dramatised, Frayn here sticks more closely to the facts, a matter of public and historical record. The play not only assesses the role of Willy Brandt in a movement which eventually led to the re-unification of Germany, but also examines the systemic strengths and weaknesses of the rule of the people which we call democracy.

It sounds like a rather pedestrian subject for a drama but in the hands of an experienced dramatist like Michael Frayn, it becomes fascinating. Democracy draws you in, involves you and teaches you not only something about politics in the middle of the cold war but also human foibles.

The play opens in 1969 when Brandt (Roger Allam) is narrowly elected to the chancellorship. Just five years later in the summer of 1974, a scandal forces his resignation. Brandt's closest personal assistant, a man born in East Germany, Günter Guillaume (Conleth Hill), and privy to everything that Brandt does, is exposed as a spy for the Communist state. Guillaume described by Brandt as looking like "the manager of a pornographic bookshop", is recruited as the voice of the "man in the street" in the Chancellor's office. Frayn's play follows the relationship of these two men as Guillaume becomes Brandt's confidant.

A side effect of democracy is sometimes the lack of an overall majority which results in coalition government, the shifting sands of power whereby small parties obtain an importance way beyond their size. Frayn, through the character of the heir in waiting, Helmut Schmidt (Glyn Grain), describes the coalition as being like an egg balanced on the end of a billiard cue. Brandt's tenuous hold on government is characterised by continuous negotiation with the various factions, even within his own party, the Social Democrats, and outside it. Frayn's all male cast of men in grey suits, debate and conspire like Roman senators.

Crucial to the play is establishing Willy Brandt's charisma. This man, who spent the Second World War in Scandanavia, had no links with Nazi Germany and seems to have had a fine political instinct. Appearing in public in East Germany, he receives an ovation. His only reply is without words, a gesture seeming to say, Settle down, our time will come. In Poland, in one of the most moving moments of the play, in memory of the Jews murdered from the Warsaw Ghetto, Brandt falls to his knees in contrition.

The play is brimming with the highly quotable. Here Brandt's description of the difference between communism and capitalism. "Under capitalism, man is oppressed by man. Under communism, it is the other way round."

Roger Allam is masterly as Brandt, in an affectionate, sometimes ambiguous portrait, conveying all those contradictory opinions about him. This is from Brandt's third wife and quoted in the programme, "Willy Brandt's legacy is precisely one of perpetual two-sidedness. He never wished to separate humility and pride, bended knee and head held high, closeness to power and distance from power, melancholy and gaiety." Many of us remember Allam's previous role as Adolf Hitler in "Albert Speer" at the National, showing the enviable range of this actor. Allam, charming, tall, handsome, stocky, with his wavy hair combed back and a loud, modern art tie, brings Brandt's immense likeability to the role as well as expressing some of his depression after taunts about Brandt's illegitimacy and political sniping hurt him. When faced by the Secret Police with the long list of women that he is meant to have slept with, Brandt disarmingly says he finds this rather flattering for a man of his age.

Conleth Hill is such an interesting and brilliant casting choice for Günter Guillaume. Last seen in London in "Stones in His Pockets", he looks not unlike his namesake, comedian Benny Hill, and also like the photographs of Guillaume. He has that likeable vulgarity combined with a peasant openess that makes no-one think of him being clever enough to be a spy. His not being unmasked is helped too by administrative incompetence that makes the West German spy catchers think that they are looking for a man with two sons. (Guillaume had one son).

Stephen Pacey plays Arno Kretschmann, Guillaume's intelligent controller from the East giving an insight as to how the information from Guillaume was used to decide policy in the communist state. Kretschmann is based on Marcus Wolf, head of the East German Intelligence Service who described with regret his role in bringing down Willy Brandt as "equivalent to kicking a football into our own goal." There are super performances from the rest of the grey suited cast, notable David Ryall's wily old campaigner "Uncle Herbert".

Blakemore uses a double level set for Brandt to make speeches from, alone on the higher level, like a star soloist. Kretschmann meets Guillaume at a café table in a small corner of the lower stage, painted in a different colour. When a crucial vote is taken, all the cast, bar Brandt, gather closely together below moving their chairs forward to hear the important result. The set is an office with shelves and shelves of coloured paper files open at right angles, a vision of bureaucracy. In the memorable finale, the sound of hammers, at first a small tapping but building gradually until it becomes a deafening collapse, dropping all the shelves and flinging papers everywhere in a visual metaphor of political fall. What we are witnessing is of course the demolition of the wall which divided Germany, the logical endgame of Brandt's policy of reconciling East and West.

Democracy has few seats left for its run at the National but there are day seats available from 10am on the day and returns on sale from 6pm. However I think Democracy will have a theatre life way beyond the National with probably a West End transfer, as Copenhagen did (Editor's Note: Per item in New Noteworthy it is slated to cross the ocean to Broadway). I enjoyed Democracy more than Copenhagen finding it more satisfying because it deals not with what might have happened but with what actually did happen.

Back to Top
Written by Michael Frayn
Directed by Michael Blakemore
Starring: Roger Allam, Conleth Hill
With: Steven Pacey, Jonathan Coy, Paul Gregory, Paul Broughton, David Ryall, Glyn Grain, Nicholas Blane, Christopher Ettridge
Set Designer: Peter J Davison
Lighting Designer: Mark Henderson
Sound: Neil Alexander
Costume Designer: Sue Willmington
Running time: Two hours 30 minutes with one interval .
Box Office: 020 7452 3000
Booking to 30th December 2003 but in repertory in the Cottesloe with Power and The Pillowman.
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 20th September 2003 Performance at the Cottesloe Theatre, National Theatre, Upper Ground London SE1 (Tube/Rail Station: Waterloo)

Follow Up Review by
Democracy at the Wydham's.

Democracy transfers to the Wyndham's Theatre, which lacks the starkness of the Cottesloe, but does have something of its intimacy so that set and production work well in their new home. Michael Simkins ably takes over the role of Arno, the spymaster who is ironically the victim of the catastrophe he is so sure will destroy his capitalist enemies.

As my colleague Lizzie Loveridge said of the Cottesloe original, the rise and fall of Willy Brandt's Social Democrat administration may seem a rather dry subject. But with Michael Frayn in the driving seat and the National Theatre offering a Rolls-Royce of a production, we are in for an intelligent and absorbing evening of theatre. You don't need to know about post-war German politics to enjoy Democracy, but if you are allergic to politics then perhaps this is not the play for you. You may, however, want to give it a chance if you admire Frayn and/or the fine acting on display.

Frayn's focus is historical politics but his play is not without contemporary echoes. There is the gifted leader damaged by his sexually voracity; the bland leader who seems to believe his own vapid, sonorous slogans; the fixer who bribes, bullies and blackmails behind the scenes; the loyal deputy whose heart stops when the chalice of power is offered, then whisked away from his lips; the Intelligence services which are anything but intelligent. Viewers may fill in the names for themselves.

Democracy is fascinated with the processes of politics, happening in a hothouse world of their own, rather than the issues that make politics happen. But it may well be Frayn's point that democracy is about people whereas politics is about politicians. There is almost a note of nostalgic regret for the passing of Communism. East German spies Guillaume and Arno turn treachery, deceit and despair into a way of life, but appear to do so for love of an ideal, whereas the West German politicians are seen to do it from self-interest. This perhaps suggests the play lacks a degree of sophistication we have a right to expect from Michael Frayn. Some of the jokes are a little weak as well, though I did relish the stereotypical German efficiency with which Brandt's bodyguard logged every illicit sexual encounter: "I noted name, profession, time in and time out". (The log finally weighs in at some 15 pages.)

Oddly enough, and I mean no disrespect here, one of the most powerful moments of the play is the curtain call: ten middle-aged Anglo-Saxon males stretch across the stage in a compelling image of masculine authority. Unlike the characters they portray, these actors are, of course, smiling and enjoying the audience's appreciation of their collaboration. But the image, an impenetrable black be-suited wall, united and literally elevated above us, calls to mind those stodgy poses politicians love to indulge in when they get together. Why do they always do this? Do they think it impresses us? Does it impress us? One hopes not.

Democracy offers us one possible answer: by mimicking the chummy line-up of a cast or a football team politicians hope we won't realise what a vicious back-stabbing profession their trade really is. Idealism can exist in this world, but only if it brings in the votes.

The cast and design team at Wyndham's were the same as the original production.
Reviewed by Brian Clover based on 21st April 2004 Performance at the Wyndham's Theatre, Charing Cross Road London/ Back to Top
Broadway Musicals: The 101 Greatest Shows of All Time
Easy-on-the budget super gift for yourself and your musical loving friends. Tons of gorgeous pictures.

Tales From Shakespeare
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
Click image to buy.
Our Review

At This Theater Cover
At This Theater

Leonard Maltin's 2005 Movie Guide
Leonard Maltin's 2005 Movie Guide

Ridiculous! The Theatrical Life and Times of Charles Ludlam
Ridiculous!The Theatrical Life & Times of Charles Ludlam

metaphors dictionary cover
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
Click image to buy.
Go here for details and larger image.

The Broadway Theatre Archive