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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
Original Review at by Lizzie Loveridge
--THE ORIGINAL REVIEW BY Lizzie Loveridge
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.
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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
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