Democracy

Michael Frayn

RNT Cottesloe

(2003)

Review by Philip Fisher

Democracy is a remarkable dual political biography. It outlines the life of German Chancellor Willy Brandt, particularly during the five-year period from 1969, when he took office, to his resignation. In parallel, it opens up the story of his "shadow", Gunter Guillaume, a man who rose to be Brandt's closest adviser and confidant.

Roger Allam has great fun in imitating the first left wing German leader for 40 years, delivering laid-back speeches and getting into his character's seamier side. As has becoming increasingly common with politicians, Brandt had a "kitchen cabinet" of men in suits who might have been familiar to Caesar.

His two key supporters were "Uncle" Herbert Wehner, a kingmaker, and Helmut Schmidt, a bit like our own Gordon Brown, too close in age to the leader to have realistic ambitions. In fact, after the Chancellor's drinking and womanising finally hit the front pages and forced his resignation, it was Schmidt that took over.

While these two were doing their best to feather their own nests without too much concern for how much help or hindrance they provided to Willy Brandt, it was the weak-chinned, bespectacled Gunter Guillaume, played by Conleth Hill, who was bolstering the Chancellor. What started as a weak government became increasingly strong as Brandt brought detente with countries to the east within reach. The irony was that, the whole time, Guillaume was a double agent working for the East German secret police, the Stasi.

Frayn employs the interesting technique of having Guillaume (a man "who looks like the manager of a pornographic bookshop") in two places at once. As well as acting as adviser to Brandt on stage right, in addition he simultaneously reports to his East German controller (Stephen Pacey as Arno) stage left.

The main message that Frayn seems keen to convey is that Brandt got far more support from his supposed enemies than from his apparent friends. While Frayn's usual director Michael Blakemore draws good performances, particularly from Allam and Hill in the main roles and David Ryall and Glyn Grain, chillingly disloyal as Helmut Schmidt, in support, this is a well-written play of ideas and history with little action.

Democracy is most successful in showing the interaction between two slightly schizophrenic men. It might have worked equally well as a novel but could be stretching audiences' intellectual capacities for some time to come, as it seems to be selling so well.

Peter J Davison's wonderful set seems modelled on one of those Labyrinthine structures of Dutch artist M.C. Escher. It also provides a highly appropriate surprise for the audience as the Chancellor's public life collapses.