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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Old Vic Theatre Summer 2012

It's been less than eight years since Michael Frayn's political play ended its original run and, notwithstanding the virtues of this new production, one wonders why there was a rush to revive it. 

A sometimes fascinating history lesson and peep behind the curtain of Realpolitik, it never was much of a drama, and some of the choices made by director Paul Miller and his cast reduce the fascination it had as speculative character study. 

No one was especially surprised to discover in the 1970s that East Germany had agents in the West German government, though it was a shock to learn that Chancellor Willy Brandt's personal assistant and gofer Gunter Guillaume was a spy. 

Frayn's research uncovered two remarkable facts – that Guillaume wasn't there to get atomic secrets or the like, but rather to give his masters a sense of the personalities of their opponents, and that far from trying to destroy Brandt, the East Germans worked to keep him in power as their best hope for détente (Frayn suggests they bribed some West German politicians to support him)

To this Frayn added his guesses about how Guillaume got so close to Brandt, what the spy's personality was, and what similarities and even bonds there were between the two. 

There isn't much of a plot here – we know that Guillaume will get close to Brandt, that he'll eventually be caught and that Brandt will be brought down by the scandal (though Frayn suggests that there were other causes as well). The power of the play lies in the character studies, and these are things that the current production makes less interesting than the original did. 

Frayn's Guillaume is a semi-comic figure, a puppy dog equally eager to please his East and West German bosses, whose evident harmlessness allows him to stumble upwards from glorified file clerk to Brandt's right hand man, and who sometimes loses sight of which master he's most loyal to. 

Aiden McArdle plays him as a much more confident and adept spy, consciously using the guise of nonentity to engineer his rise. In the early scenes he is almost never without a file folder in his hand, bustling about on some errand that makes him invisible to those he's spying on (and, almost incidentally, delivering that file to his East German handler). It's a much less comic and much less interesting character. 

Frayn's guess about Willy Brandt, notorious for his paradoxical mix of brilliant political instinct and paralysing indecision, is that the man who had held so many different identities in his early anti-Nazi days had lost any sense of who he actually was. (This is also Frayn's guess at the bond between him and the role-playing spy.) 

Patrick Drury plays him almost as an absent-minded professor, more at home in philosophical speculations and nostalgia than in the day-to-day infighting of politics (Another of Frayn's insights, making division one of the key symbols of the play, is that Brandt's own government and inner circle were far from unified, with former Nazis hating former communists, Frankfort men distrusting Berlin men, and everyone out for himself.) 

So Drury's Brandt is easily pigeon-holed, and never the enigma the play wants him to be. 

Elsewhere Ed Hughes makes Guillaume's spymaster a simple apparatchik while the other politicians are generally played on one note each, William Hoyland generating the most energy as the most sinister among them. 

This revival of Democracy will teach you a lot about a piece of history. But it may not hold your interest once the basic facts have been spelled out, and it is not likely to involve you emotionally.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Democracy - Old Vic Theatre 2012 
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