Review: Democracy

A revival of Michael Frayn's dissection of cold war politics.

Back in 2004, Clive Barnes, a former theatre critic at the New York Times, called Michael Frayn’s Democracy "(A) true-to-life version of a modern Julius Caesar with a touch of Othello thrown in”. Following equally rapturous reviews from its run in March this year at Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre, Democracy arrives this week at the Old Vic in London.

The play tells the true story of Stasi spy Günter Guillaume as he makes his way through the highest ranks of the Federal Republic of Germany’s government. The unlikely relationship he formed with Chancellor Willy Brandt, played by a strikingly imperious Patric Dury, is subject to close scutiny by Frayn, who attempts to draw out the parallels between the two men: one, the leader of a nation, as isolated as he is suffocated by those hoping to grasp power around him, and the other, a half-wit civil servant, torn between his allegiances to East Germany and later Brandt, for whom he holds real affection. Their fates have a tragic symmetry to them, with Brandt’s  political career coming crashing down in response to the “gutter press” scandal unleashed by Guillaume being uncovered as a spy. Both men are left bereft by the consequences of Guillaume’s betrayal.

Yet Democracy lacks any of the tragic gravitas that any description of the plot might suggest. It is, after all, a fascinating subject: the leader of a nation wittingly and unwittingly betrayed by a close friend, a spy, at the height of the cold war. Yet in watching the play, it is hard to feel any of the suspense that the promise of Guillaume’s downfall should engender. The fates of both characters do not inspire the kind of paralysing disbelief of an audience who has sat through, say, the aforementioned Othello.  Aidan McArdle’s portrayal of a deliberately irritating Guillaume may be too convincing for the audience to develop any real empathy for him.

Yet Frayn’s play is also a thorough dissection of Cold War politics, charting the sweeping changes in Western Germany’s diplomatic relations with the Eastern Bloc. Perhaps there is a case to be made that Democracy even makes pertinent observations of modern political life in Britain. There were sniggers in the audience at any mention of the difficulties of trying to run a coalition government, for example. At a stretch one could even spot a reference to Wikileaks, with Guillaume rummaging through secret diplomatic cables that see various embassies whingeing about each other. More generally, however, the internal struggles of political life that it portrays could be applied to many places - but any insight and comedy it provides is slight.

Ultimately, it is the images of memorable episodes in German history, and Brandt’s role in them, that linger in the mind: the Chancellor kneeling before the Warsaw Guetto Heroes Memorial in 1970, for example, or, the same year, his appearance in East Germany, the first time a West German Chancellor had ever crossed the border into the GDR. At one point, while Brandt is delivering a speech, Guillaume and fellow spy Arno Kretschmann, played by Ed Hughes, are bathed in a sepia shade of light; their rapt attention, seen in this aging light, capturing for a few seconds on stage a slice of German history. Democracy may not be a universal, indeed democratic, play, but it is undeniably an important tribute to 20th century European history.

"Democracy" runs at the Old Vic, London SE1 until 28 July

Cold warrior: Michael Frayn, author of Democracy Photograph: Getty Images
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The Big Sick is well meaning, rather than groundbreaking

There’s a chemistry shortfall between the actors, and some limits to Kumail Nanjiani’s range.

When real romances are adapted for the screen by those involved, the process usually occurs after the flame has gone out. Woody Allen and Diane Keaton were just good friends by the time they made Annie Hall; Julie Delpy and Adam Goldberg had broken up long before they played lovers in 2 Days in Paris. The Big Sick, however, is based on the relationship between its lead actor, Kumail Nanjiani, and his wife, Emily V Gordon (played by Zoe Kazan), who wrote the script together. Their story, a loose retelling of real events, shifts the emphasis away from whether or not their love survived (we know it did) and on to how it endured in the face of unusual odds – with Emily lying comatose in hospital when they had scarcely got to know one another.

The director, Michael Showalter, is not a man scared of spelling out the obvious (during an argument between Kumail and Emily, a road sign behind them reads “Speed bump ahead”) but even he draws the line at putting The Smiths’s “Girlfriend in a Coma” on the soundtrack.

Kumail is a Pakistani comic on the lower rungs of the Chicago stand-up circuit. His family is trying to marry him off to a nice Muslim woman but Kumail is more interested in Emily, a graduate student in psychotherapy who heckles him at a gig one night. His family, given to openly disdaining any relatives with white partners, isn’t aware of her existence, but it hasn’t watched, as we have, the cutesy montage of their courtship.

The couple finish most of their dates with a joke about never seeing one another again. When Emily becomes ill and is placed in a medically induced coma, this running gag becomes unexpectedly resonant, along with Kumail’s choice of date movie: The Abominable Dr Phibes, in which Vincent Price takes revenge on the doctors who let his wife die in surgery. In a piece of timing that adds an extra tartness, Kumail and Emily have broken up shortly before she falls ill. Strictly speaking, they aren’t even in a relationship when Kumail first encounters Emily’s mother, Beth (Holly Hunter), and father, Terry (Ray Romano), at the hospital. Meet the Parents coincides unexpectedly with While You Were Sleeping. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner lurks in the background.

The estrangement might have been definitive were it not for the coma, though the film can’t quite bring itself to acknowledge the helpful part played in the couple’s relationship by a life-threatening medical emergency. In common with anything in which Judd Apatow has a hand (he gets a producing credit here), The Big Sick is in the business of reassurance. Emily mentions that she works with men convicted of domestic violence but the world of the film is one where harm is only ever inflicted inadvertently.

Discomfort surfaces in the two brief scenes that come closest to holding to account Nanjiani’s likeable, mildly neurotic persona. The tremendous Vella Lovell stands out as one of Kumail’s prospective brides, who upbraids him for his cowardice. And Emily rages at him over a perceived betrayal in a scene that would be more persuasive still if the pair seemed like actual lovers rather than just room-mates. There’s a chemistry shortfall between the actors as well as some limits to Nanjiani’s range, which extends from “genial” to “a bit cross”.

He also suffers from the problem, common to stand-ups who become actors, of not always knowing how to integrate material into characterisation. Seinfeld handled it well by showing Jerry getting caught out trying to sneak “bits” into casual conversation, but in The Big Sick the gags often sit on top of the action. The movie’s best joke is Kumail’s response when Terry, who has clearly never met a Muslim before, asks his opinion on 9/11. No man would ever say what he says to the parents of a woman he was hoping to win back, let alone whose life was hanging in the balance, and if we forgive him, it’s only because it’s an ingenious line. It is also one of the thousand or so reasons why The Big Sick is well meaning rather than groundbreaking, and why a Judd Apatow production will never be confused with a Preston Sturges one. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue