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
Screenshot of Black Mirror's Fifteen Million Merits.
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How likely are the plots of each Black Mirror episode to happen?

As the third series is on its way, how realistic is each instalment so far of the techno-dystopian drama? We rate the plausibility of every episode.

What if horses could vote? What if wars were fought using Snapchat? What if eggs were cyber?

Just some of the questions that presumably won’t be answered in the new series of Charlie Brooker’s dystopian anthology series Black Mirror, somewhere between The Twilight Zone with an app and The Thick Of It on acid.

A typical instalment takes an aspect of modern technology, politics, or life in general and pushes it a few steps into the future – but just how plausible has each episode been so far?

Series 1 (2011)

Episode 1: The National Anthem

Premise: A member of the Royal Family is kidnapped and will only be released unharmed if the Prime Minister agrees to have sexual intercourse with a pig on live television.

Instead of predicting the future, Black Mirror’s first episode unwittingly managed to foreshadow an allegation about the past: Charlie Brooker says at the time he was unaware of the story surrounding David Cameron and a pig-based activity that occurred at Oxford university. But there’s absolutely no evidence that the Cameron story is true, and real political kidnappings tend to have rather more prosaic goals. On the other hand, it’s hard to say that something akin to the events portrayed could NEVER happen.

Plausibility rating: 2 out of 5

Episode 2: Fifteen Million Merits

Premise: Sometime in the future, most of the population is forced to earn money by pedalling bikes to generate electricity, while constantly surrounded by unskippable adverts. The only hope of escape is winning an X-Factor-style game show.

In 2012, a Brazilian prison announced an innovative method of combating overcrowding. Prisoners were given the option to spend some of their time on electricity-producing bikes; for every 16 hours they spent on the bike, a day would be knocked off their sentence.

The first step to bicycle-dystopia? Probably not. The amount of electricity a human body can produce through pedalling (or any other way, for that matter) is pretty negligible, especially when you take account of the cost of the food you’d have to eat to have enough energy to pedal all day. Maybe the bike thing is a sort of metaphor. Who can say?

Plausibility rating: 0 out of 5

Episode 3: The Entire History of You

Premise: Everyone has a device implanted in their heads that records everything that happens to them and allows them to replay those recordings at will.

Google Glasses with a built-in camera didn’t work out, because no one wanted to walk around looking like a creepy berk. But the less visibly creepy version is coming; Samsung patented “smart” contact lenses with a built-in camera earlier this year.

And there are already social networks and even specialised apps that are packaging up slices of our online past and yelling them at us regardless of whether we even want them: Four years ago you took this video of a duck! Remember when you became Facebook friends with that guy from your old work who got fired for stealing paper? Look at this photo of the very last time you experienced true happiness!

Plausibility rating: 5 out of 5

Series 2 (2013)

Episode 1: Be Right Back

Premise: A new service is created that enables an artificial “resurrection” of the dead via their social media posts and email. You can even connect it to a robot, which you can then kiss.

Last year, Eugenia Kuyda, an AI entrepreneur, was grieving for her best friend and hit upon the idea of feeding his old text messages into one of her company’s neural network-based chat bots, so that she and others could, in a way, continue to talk to him. Reaction to this was, unsurprisingly, mixed – this very episode was cited by those who were disturbed by the tribute. Even the robot bit might not be that far off, if that bloke who made the creepy Scarlett Johansson android has anything to say about it.

Plausibility rating: 4 out of 5

Episode 2: White Bear

Premise: A combination of mind-wiping technology and an elaborately staged series of fake events are used to punish criminals by repeatedly giving them an experience that will make them feel like their own victims did.

There is some evidence that it could be possible to selectively erase memories using a combination of drugs and other therapies, but would this ever be used as part of a bizarre criminal punishment? Well, this kind of “fit the crime” penalty is not totally unheard of – judges in America have been to known to force slum landlords to live in their own rental properties, for example. But, as presented here, it seems a bit elaborate and expensive to work at any kind of scale.

Plausibility rating: 1 out of 5

Episode 3: The Waldo Moment

Premise: A cartoon bear stands as an MP.

This just couldn’t happen, without major and deeply unlikely changes to UK election law. Possibly the closest literal parallel in the UK was when Hartlepool FC’s mascot H'Angus the Monkey stood for, and was elected, mayor – although the bloke inside, Stuart Drummond, ran under his own name and immediately disassociated himself from the H’Angus brand to become a serious and fairly popular mayor.

There are no other parallels with grotesque politicians who may as well be cartoon characters getting close to high political office. None.

Plausibility rating: 0 out of 5

Christmas special (2015)

Episode: White Christmas

Premise 1: Everyone has a device implanted in their eyes that gives them constant internet access. One application of this is to secretly get live dating/pick-up artistry advice.

As with “The Entire History of You”, there’s nothing particularly unfeasible about the underlying technology here. There’s already an app called Relationup that offers live chat with “relationship advisers” who can help you get through a date; another called Jyst claims to have solved the problem by allowing users to get romantic advice from a community of anonymous users. Or you could, you know, just smile and ask them about themselves.

Plausibility rating: 4 out of 5

Premise 2: Human personalities can be copied into electronic devices. These copies then have their spirits crushed and are forced to become the ultimate personalised version of Siri, running your life to your exact tastes.

The Blue Brain Project research group last year announced they’d modelled a small bit of rat brain as a stepping stone to a full simulation of the human brain, so, we’re getting there.

But even if it is theoretically possible, using an entire human personality to make sure your toast is always the right shade of brown seems like overkill. What about the risk of leaving your life in the hands of a severely traumatised version of yourself? What if that bathwater at “just the right” temperature turns out to be scalding hot because the digital you didn’t crack in quite the right way?

Plausibility rating: 1 out of 5

Premise 3: There’s a real-life equivalent of a social media block: once blocked, you can’t see or hear the person who has blocked you. This can also be used as a criminal punishment and people classed as sex offenders are automatically blocked by everyone.

Again, the technology involved is not outrageous. But even if you have not worried about the direct effect of such a powerful form of social isolation on the mental health of criminals, letting them wander around freely in this state is likely to have fairly unfortunate consequences, sooner or later. It’s almost as if it’s just a powerful image to end a TV drama on, rather than a feasible policy suggestion.

Plausibility rating: 2 out of 5

Series 3 of Black Mirror is out on Friday 21 October on Netflix.