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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In defence of orientalism, the case against Twenty20, and why Ken should watch Son of Saul

My week, from Age Concern to anti-semitism.

Returning late from a party I never much wanted to go to, I leap up and down in the middle of the Harrow Road in the hope of flagging down a taxi, but the drivers don’t notice me. Either they’re haring down the fast lane or they’re too preoccupied cursing Uber to one another on their mobile phones. My father drove a black cab, so I have a deep loyalty to them. But there’s nothing like being left stranded in NW10 in the dead of night to make one reconsider one’s options. I just wish Uber wasn’t called Uber.

Just not cricket

Tired and irritable, I spend the next day watching sport on television – snooker, darts, cricket, anything I can find. But I won’t be following the Indian Premier League’s Twenty20 cricket again. It’s greedy, cynical, over-sponsored and naff. Whenever somebody hits a boundary, cheerleaders in cast-off gym kit previously worn by fourth-form Roedean girls wave tinsel mops.

Matches go to the final over where they’re decided in a thrashathon of sixes hit by mercenaries wielding bats as wide as shovels. Why, in that case, don’t both teams just play a final over each and dispense with the previous 19? I can’t wait for the elegant ennui of a five-day Test match.

Stop! Culture police!

I go to the Delacroix exhibition at the National Gallery to shake off the sensation of all-consuming kitsch. Immediately I realise I have always confused Delacroix with someone else but I can’t decide who. Maybe Jacques-Louis David. The show convincingly argues that Delacroix influenced every artist who came after him except Jeff Koons, who in that case must have been influenced by David. It’s turbulent, moody work, some of the best of it, again to my surprise, being religious painting with the religion taken out. Christ’s followers lamenting his death don’t appear to be expecting miracles. This is a man they loved, cruelly executed. The colours are the colours of insupportable grief.

I love the show but wish the curators hadn’t felt they must apologise for Delacroix finding the North Africans he painted “exotic”. Cultural studies jargon screams from the wall. You can hear the lecturer inveighing against the “appropriating colonial gaze” – John Berger and Edward Said taking all the fun out of marvelling at what’s foreign and desirable. I find myself wondering where they’d stand on the Roedean cheer-leaders of Mumbai.

Taking leave of the senses

My wife drags me to a play at Age Concern’s headquarters in Bloomsbury. When I see where she’s taking me I wonder if she plans to leave me there. The play is called Don’t Leave Me Now and is written by Brian Daniels. It is, to keep it simple, about the effects of dementia on the families and lovers of sufferers. I am not, in all honesty, expecting a good time. It is a reading only, the actors sitting in a long line like a board of examiners, and the audience hunched forward in the attitude of the professionally caring.  My wife is a therapist so this is her world.

Here, unlike in my study, an educated empathy prevails and no one is furious. I fear that art is going to get lost in good intention. But the play turns out to be subtly powerful, sympathetic and sharp, sad and funny; and hearing it read engages me as seeing it performed might not have done. Spared the spectacle of actors throwing their bodies around and singing about their dreams against a backdrop painted by a lesser, Les Mis version of Delacroix, you can concentrate on the words. And where dementia is the villain, words are priceless.

Mixing with the proles

In Bloomsbury again the next day for a bank holiday design and craft fair at Mary Ward House. I have a soft spot for craft fairs, having helped run a craft shop once, and I feel a kinship with the designers sitting bored behind their stalls, answering inane questions about kilns and receiving empty compliments. But it’s the venue that steals the show, a lovely Arts and Crafts house, founded in the 1890s by the novelist Mary Ward with the intention of enabling the wealthy and educated to live among the poor and introduce them to the consolations of beauty and knowledge. We’d call that patronising. We’re wrong. It’s a high ideal, to ease the burden of poverty and ignorance and, in Ward’s words, save us from “the darker, coarser temptations of our human road”.

An Oscar-winning argument for Zionism

Speaking of which, I am unable to empty my mind of Ken Livingstone and his apologists as I sit in the cinema and watch the just-released Academy Award-winning Son of Saul, a devastating film about one prisoner’s attempt to hold on to a vestige of humanity in a Nazi death camp. If you think you know of hell from Dante or Michelangelo, think again. The inferno bodied forth in Son of Saul is no theological apportioning of justice or deserts. It is the evisceration of meaning, the negation of every grand illusion about itself mankind has ever harboured. There has been a fashion, lately, to invoke Gaza as proof that the Holocaust is a lesson that Jews failed to learn – as though one cruelty drives out another, as though suffering is forfeit, and as though we, the observers, must choose between horrors.

I defy even Livingstone to watch this film, in which the Jews, once gassed, become “pieces” – Stücke – and not grasp the overwhelming case for a Jewish place of refuge. Zionism pre-dated the camps, and its fulfilment, if we can call it that, came too late for those millions reduced to the grey powder mountains the Sonderkommandos were tasked with sweeping away. It diminishes one’s sympathy for the Palestinian cause not a jot to recognise the arguments, in a world of dehumanising hate, for Zionism. Indeed, not to recognise those arguments is to embrace the moral insentience whose murderous consequence Son of Saul confronts with numbed horror. 

This article first appeared in the 05 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The longest hatred