By Corinna Lotz
In an age when politics is considered the ultimate yawn, when what is known as “our democratic system” fails to interest or inspire around 64 per cent of the electorate, Democracy is playing to a full house at the Cottesloe theatre.
Ten soberly suited men pacing around an office hardly seems exciting material for a two-and-a-half hour production. And yet Michael Frayn has the ability to keep our attention, to keep us guessing, largely by his fidelity to events and personalities. But, as always, truth is indeed stranger than fiction.
Now 70, Frayn is on a prolific roll as author and playwright. Democracy is his 16th play. It follows the great success of Copenhagen, which after a long run at the National Theatre, appeared on BBC television a few weeks ago. Frayn’s Spies won the Whitbread Novel of the Year award in 2002.
Copenhagen gave a detailed if poetic account of the contradictory friendship between two nuclear physicists Heisenberg and Bohr. A parallel is drawn between Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle and the complexities of the relationship between the two men, trapped as they were in political circumstances beyond their control.
Frayn has a superb ability to summons up those key moments in political and personal life when people make decisions which cause history to change. And he delves into the minds of chief protagonists – West German Chancellor Willy Brandt and the East German spy Guenther Guillaume – to discover that human beings have contradictory strands in their characters which cause them to do extraordinary things.
Democracy sticks closely to the historical record and the way in which its characters were seen by contemporaries.
Frayn admires Brandt’s ability to hold together the schemers around him. According to The Observer’s Neal Ascherson, the playwright “detests the old saying about the man who is told 'I wouldn't start from here', when he asks the way to Kilkenny. 'The point is that you do have to start from here,' Talking about the play, Frayn exclaimed: 'You have to start from the ghastly mess things are always in!'
Democracy’s depiction of “realpolitik” will no doubt strengthen people’s perception as to what politics is actually like – plotting, blackmail, backstabbing, compromising, a total lack of guiding principle, kept on the road by those who have some kind of vision. It’s easy, as reviewers have noted, to see Brandt’s regime as a metaphor for Blair and New Labour.
Guillaume became Brandt’s personal assistant after the leader of West Germany’s Social Democrats formed a coalition with the FDP (Liberal) party in the autumn of 1969. Guillaume was in fact a long-term agent planted by spymaster Marcus Wolf (the original for Karla in John Le Carre’s spy tales).
Belfast-based actor Conleth Hill turns in a multi-facetted performance as the infiltrator who knows how to turn every disadvantage into an opportunity. He knows exactly how to exploit the West German politicians’ avowed anti-Stalinism to inveigle himself into the ruling political circles.
Roger Allam’s Brandt is witty, wary and stands somewhat above the plotters who surround him.
Equally clever is the way that over the course of the production, we see how the Chancellor and the spy themselves change. Brandt oscillates between popular triumphs and personal doubt. Guillaume fears for his wife and son as his climb to the top of spydom breeds ever greater fear of discovery. Ultimately the role he has to perform as Brandt’s aide becomes more real than his “real” other self as a spy.
David Ryall is totally convincing as the sinister fixer Herbert Wehner, the ultimate ex-Stalinist schemer and blackmailer who gave away his comrades to Stalin’s secret police. Nicholas Blane as the creepy Interior Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher gets some revealing lines like: “Spontaneity, like democracy needs to be kept firmly under control”.
Frayn as the investigator of the human psyche seeks to unravel the multifarious strands that make up what is a person in politics. This is the great plus in his chronicle of this episode in German post-war history.
But the microscopic, internalised view of the interplay of personalities has certain emptiness at its core. Brandt is portrayed as an honourable man, who wanted to somehow reconcile the two Germanies. Yes, the West German Chancellor’s kneeling on the ground on his visit to Warsaw Ghetto marked a real attempt to take responsibility for the horror of Nazism, and he did speak for many Germans when he did this.
Frayn lampoons the West German “democrats” utter cynicism about democracy, but the play never indicates how preserving capitalism in the West also meant state repression of its own opposition – though he makes clear their willingness to recognise and deal with those who put down the 1953 uprising in east Berlin and elsewhere. This monstrous artificial state oppressed anyone who dared to challenge the bankrupt and crazy notion of creating “socialism in a single country”.
The action is set between 1969 and 1974, but there is no mention of the pro-democracy student movement that rocked West Germany in the late 1960s, or the arrest of the Baader Meinhof terrorist group in 1972.
In the same year that Brandt signed agreements with DDR German leaders to ease border controls, his government passed anti-“extremist” laws which meant that anyone seeking a job in the public services had to declare his or her support for the “democratic order”, the notorious “Berufsverbot”, or blacklist.
A border guard is caught in the act of helping a child across the border; 1961
26 June 1963 - Kennedy on the observation platform at Checkpoint Charlie; Brandt, then mayor of West Berlin is on far right
The bottom line, which to Frayn’s great credit becomes starkly clear, is that the Stalinist leaders of the East needed to keep Willy Brandt in power. Far from opposing the capitalist leaders of the West, they helped to prop them up – which is why Markus Wolf called the Guillaume affair an own goal.
Frayn’s view of the spy and the spied upon is a brilliant close-up of human character. But we are deprived of seeing the Brandt-Guillaume episode in the context of a country divided to suit the interests of the big powers and national leaders – who feared a united independent democratic movement of workers, youth and ordinary people east and west.
Democracy is on at the Cottesloe Theatre until the end of December - book soon; it is selling out fast www.nationaltheatre.org.uk
22 September 2003