The German democracy which is now doing its best to prop up the rest of Europe, was one which emerged, phoenix-like, from the devastation of the Second World War. It was a nation which had to confront both Past and Present; East and West. Its loyalties were muddled; it was uneasy with itself. 'Democracy', Michael Frayn's 2003 political drama, explores this idea through the life of Gunter Guillaume, the assistant to Willy Brandt, the Socialist Democratic Chancellor of West Germany from 1969 - 1974.
Brandt's celebrated Eastern policy, and the contradictions and dilemmas this exposed, is a main theme throughout the play. This is a complex world where old Communists sit alongside sons of Wehrmacht officers, locked in Byzantine coalitions with other German parties, all the while attempting to stimulate dialogue with their eastern neighbours. And all this when the loyalties of Brandt's assistant, Guillaume, are divided: Guillaume is both the Chancellor's obliging assistant and an agent for the East German Government.
The plumbing of German democracy is exposed in all its grim detail by Frayn. The rasping cynicism of the former communist turned Machiavel, Herbert Wehner (William Hoyland), rubs alongside the oily subservience of government ministers. Far from the swooning crowds of Brandt's fans, we see the infighting and division within the SDP. Brandt inherited a political situation with the familiar themes of the ever changing centre ground, the old and new left feuding and the problems inherent in coalition politics. Frayn mercifully avoided drawing any blatant parallels between the three main characters holding together the SDP at the time, and what Peter Mandelson would later call the 'Three Musketeers' of New Labour.
Into this world is woven some excellent Teutonically clipped dialogue. And despite the subject matter, this is not a humourless or dry political play. Patrick Drury, gives an excellent and wide-ranging account of Brandt. The performance is a constant entertainment, as Brandt drifts from his crude east German humour, which is relished by the audience, to his grand symbolic gestures and messianic language. All this clashes, often comically so, with the often reticent and fidgeting Guillaume, brilliantly realised by Aidan McArdle.
The psychological aspects of Brandt are explored through the lens of Guillaume. The spy, oddly enough, is encouraged to prop Brandt up; the main threat to the Chancellor is not the traitor masquerading as assistant, but rather his own party colleagues. The Brandt that Guillaume sees is, behind closed doors, a vulnerable figure: a depressive, a womaniser and a drinker; often indecisive having lived a life on the run from persecution. Brandt is amorphous, constantly adapting, changing his name and character to suit his environment. The depths of his personality are plummed; like the Germany he inherits, he quotes Walt Whitman noting 'I am large, I contain multitudes'. His land is one, which Guillaume's eastern contact notes, made up of 60 million seperate cells. It defies easy summary.
The result is more than a simple piece of political theatre. Yes we have the modern parallels and the sharp and pacy political dialogue, but we also have real psychological complexity and a laudable subtelty in the characters' development. The result is a both enjoyable and stimulating performance.
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