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