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
SAMUEL COURTAULD TRUST
Show Hide image

The monochrome set

In Pieter Bruegel’s hands, even black and white paintings can be full of colour.

Grisailles – monochrome images usually painted in shades of grey and white – have a long tradition. Early examples appeared in the 14th century as miniatures or manuscript illuminations and then later on the outside of the folding panels of altarpieces, where they imitated sepulchre statues and offered a stark contrast to the bright colour of the paintings inside. With their minimal palette, grisailles also offered painters a chance both to show off their skill and to add their bit to the age-old artistic debate about paragone: which was superior – sculpture, with its ability to show a figure in three dimensions, or painting, with its powers of illusion? By pretending to be sculpture, grisailles could better it.

The first artist to paint grisailles as independent works for private enjoyment and contemplation was the Netherlander Pieter Bruegel the Elder (circa 1525-69), whose folk scenes of peasants carousing or of hunters in a snowy landscape have long been staples of art’s quotidian, earthy strand. Only about 40 works by him are now known and of those, just three are grisailles (not a term he would have recognised; he referred to the pictures simply as “painted in black and white”). This trio of survivors has been reunited for the first time, at the Courtauld Gallery, with an accompanying selection of copies and engravings – a mere ten pictures in all – for a fascinating one-room exhibition.

The grisailles show a deeper and more intellectual artist than the sometimes slapstick figure who would dress as a peasant in order to gatecrash weddings in the Brabant countryside and record the drunken and playful goings-on in his pictures. They reflect the position of the Low Countries in Bruegel’s time, caught between the Catholicism of their Spanish overlords and the emerging Protestantism that had been sparked by Martin Luther only eight years before Bruegel’s birth. These tensions soon erupted in the Eighty Years War.

Of the three paintings, two show religious subjects – The Death of the Virgin (1562-65) and Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (1565) – and one is a scene that would have been familiar in the streets around him, Three Soldiers (1568). This last, lent by the Frick Collection in New York, shows a drummer, a piper and a standard-bearer in the elaborately slashed uniforms of German Landsknechte mercenaries. Such groupings featured often in German prints and Bruegel’s small picture is a clever visual game: painting could imitate not only sculpture, but prints, too. What’s more, the gorgeously coloured uniforms (mercenaries were exempt from the sumptuary laws that restricted clothing to sedate colours) could be shown to be just as arresting even in black and white.

If this is a painting about painting, the ­religious works have, it seems, added layers of meaning – although it is always difficult with Bruegel to work out what that meaning is and how personal it might be. The Courtauld’s Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery shows Jesus stooping in front of the Pharisees and saving the accused woman from stoning by writing in the dust, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” That he spells out the words in Dutch rather than Hebrew, which was more usual in other images of the scene (and which he uses on the tunic of one of the learned men observing the mute play), suggests that this picture – a plea for clemency – was intended to serve as a call for religious tolerance amid mounting sectarian antagonism. While the gaping faces of the onlookers recall those of Hieronymus Bosch, the flickering calligraphic touches and passages of great delicacy are all his own.

The picture stayed with Bruegel until his death, so it had a personal meaning for him; more than 20 copies were subsequently made. Included in the exhibition are the copies painted by his sons, Jan and Pieter the Younger (a coloured version), as well as the earliest known print after it, from 1579, by Pieter Perret, which shows some of the detail in the crowd around the central figures that has been lost in the discoloured panel.

If the sombre tones of grisaille are suited to the pared-down faith advocated by Luther, the death of the Virgin was a familiar topic in Catholic and Orthodox iconography. Bruegel’s picture, from Upton House in Warwickshire, depicts an episode that doesn’t actually appear in the Bible. A group of Apostles and mourners has gathered around the Virgin’s bed, the scene lit by the heavenly light emanating from the dying woman and the five flames from the candles and the hearth that correspond to the five wounds suffered by her son on the cross. Domestic items litter the room – a slice of orange, slippers, a dozing cat – and there is a sleeping attendant, unaware of the miracle of Assumption that will shortly unfold. Here is a moving nocturne in which the mysteries of religion emerge from and disappear back into the shadows.

While Bruegel’s peasant works display a delight in physical pleasure, these three bravura works, painted for humanist connoisseurs and for himself, portray the sober, spiritual concerns that come to the fore once the last drop has been drunk. 

The exhibition runs until 8 May. For more details, go to: courtauld.ac.uk

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 11 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle