Crucible Theatre Sheffield
A fellow audience member was overheard to call the play ‘chewy'. Certainly a lot to chew on in this impressive production by associate director, Paul Miller. In an essay published in Methuen Drama's Michael Frayn: Plays 4, Frayn points out, that while we are relatively well informed about Germany during the two world wars, we know much less about the history and politics of the inter war years.
The frequent breakdown of coalition governments in the 1930s led to the rise of Hitler and a Fascist Dictatorship. The post WW2 period leading up to the Chancellorship of Willie Brandt in 1969 was a remarkable period of renewal, economic growth and the establishment of Democratic government, played out against a background of post war occupation (the divided Berlin) and a steady flow of immigrants from Communist Eastern Europe until the Berlin Wall was constructed in 1961.
The time span of the play takes us from Brandt's electoral success in 1969 to his replacement by Helmut Schmidt in 1974, five crucial years during which Brandt opened up Germany to the East, signing treaties with Russia, Poland and eventually East Germany.
At the heart of the play are two complementary characters: the charming, charismatic Brandt; and an East German immigrant, Gunter Guillaume, a ‘sleeper' for the GDR's intelligence service, an oily, sycophantic character, who has insinuated himself into Brandt's government team. This places him in a position to observe and report back on the relationship between Brandt and his ministers and to photograph important government documents, particularly those relating to the treaties with the Soviet block.
As well as the political content, the play deals with issues of identity. Just as Germany is a divided country, so Guillaume is a character divided and confused by the two roles he plays and the two masters he serves. Similarly Brandt is teased by notions of how easily he could have had a different life experience, and ended up as an inconsequential member of the throng that greets him at railway stops. He often sees a young man in a distinctive hat, who could be his younger self, staring at him critically in the crowd.
The production uses the full sweep of the Crucible stage to advantage. Designated areas represent the various offices in the Federal Chancery in Bonn, but the action is kept dynamic and fluid by restless crossing and re-crossing of the central shared space by self-important government ministers who are always in a hurry.
Patrick Drury is an elegant and imposing Brandt. He is immaculately turned out in a well fitting blue suit, which gives credibility to his Don Juan tendency as a frequent seducer of women. More importantly, Drury successfully presents the complexity of the central character: his silences; his indecisiveness; his occasional periods of withdrawal and depression; but also, his instinctive feeling for the appropriate gesture at the appropriate time. On a visit to the ruins of the Warsaw Ghetto he sinks silently to his knees.
Aidan McArdle as Guillaume, dressed in an ill fitting brown suit, shuffling from one office to another with the invisibility of ‘a hat stand', similarly explores the complexity of his role as the spy who increasingly admires the politician he betrays, and ultimately, when exposed, ignores an opportunity to escape to East Berlin so that he can explain himself to Brandt. He has no chance to do this and is imprisoned for several years as a consequence.
There are strong performances from Richard Hope as Horst Ehmke, Brandt's Chief of Staff, and William Hoyland as the wily, cynical Herbert Wehner, Brandt's party leader in the Bundestag. But each member of the ten-strong male cast convincingly fleshes out his role.
There are references to coalition governments and a perfidious Liberal Party, which raised a titter in the audience, but mainly this is a play exploring the relationship between two men at a significant time in modern German political history.
Reviewer: Velda Harris