Thursday, June 28, 2012

'Democracy' at the Old Vic, 28th June 2012

Walking into a play like Michael Frayne's ‘Democracy' carries with it its own set of worries.   I know vaguely that it's about  the machinations of politicians in West Germany in the early 70s, this, to be honest, doesn't sound like a whiteknuckle thrillride. My knowledge of postwar West German politics is pretty basic, and creeping around the back of my mind was the fear that I’d signed myself up for an evening of very dry and worthy political drama.  At first, I feel like these fears are all coming true.  The stage is rapidly populated by  a group of middle-aged and elderly men in suits, and without much explanation we’re thrown into a complex world of coalitions and acronyms: SDP, CDU, FDP.  For the first third of the play I’m more preoccupied by trying to work out who is who and how these characters inter-relate to each other.  It’s hard going. I begin to wish I’d done a bit of pre-reading as to who the characters in this play are and what they're doing. 

The play concerns the intertwined lives of two men:  German Chancellor Willy Brandt, and his assistant Gunter Guillaume.  Brandt was a popular and charismatic, Nobel prize winning politician seemingly adored by his public.  Guilluame was one of his closest aides, living and working with Brandt for years.  But Guilluame was also a deep cover spy working for the East German Stasi, feeding them confidential information on Brandt for years.  When Guillaume was exposed, it led to the resignation and disgrace of Brandt, arguably to the detriment of both West and East Germany.

The two men initially seem quite different, Brandt seems like a born leader and orator, a man able to sense public opinion, to make people love and believe in him.  Guillaume on the other hand is ingratiating, eager-to-please and submissive, a character that lurks in the periphery of rooms, trying to become part of the scenery.  The men come from starkly different political backgrounds which inform much of their personalities, Brandt seems to effortlessly swim through the murky waters of parliamentary democracy, while Guillaume comes from the authoritarian and repressive East Germany.  As the two men bond and  discover they have more in common than they initially thought, the emotional stakes are raised. Guillaume begins to desperately worry about what might happen to Brandt if he was uncovered as a spy. 

Willy Brandt (Patrick Drury) and Gunter Guillaume (Aidan McArdle)
The relationship between the two men in terms of spy and subject is somewhat unique.  Guillaume is not under orders to sabotage Brandt, or to try and undermine, rather he is there so the East Germans can try to understand the man, and found out what makes him tick.  The tragedy of this relationship is that in doing this the two men come to implicitly trust each other.  Guillaume eventually begins to love the man he is lying to every day, and develops an appreciation of the thrills of parliamentary politics.  Meanwhile, Brandt comes to rely on Guillaume’s organisational and bureaucratic skills, and his understanding of how to cheer him up. 

Once I understood the nature of this relationship and had gotten to grips with the personalities of these men, the play becomes much easier to digest.  Patrick Drury as Brandt has a fairly complex task in portraying a man who can be marching in front of a crowd giving an inspiring speech one moment, and sitting crumpled in his office in a depressive fugue the next.  Whenever he makes a speech an echoing, booming effect is added to the actor’s voice, making us feel every portentous and inspiring word, as if he is speaking to us clearly through the fog of history.  Even though he’s dynamic and successful, Drury imbues him with a sense of tragic vulnerability.  He is surrounded by venal, backstabbing colleagues, and he alone seems like a true idealist and visionary.   We hear about his womanising and his drinking, but these flaws somehow serve  only to throw into sharp contrast his positive points.  This is helped by scenes where Brandt tells us about his past dodging the Gestapo during World War II, there is a tenderness and emotional nakedness to the performance which is unnerving in a portrayal of a politician, and makes his  eventual discovery of Guillaume’s betrayal that much more tragic.

Aidan McArdle has a dual role to play as Guillaume: character and narrator.  He tells us the story in the past tense, often ‘pausing’ the action to explain what’s going on, or to explain his thoughts at a particular moment.  His East German origins are known to the other characters, and this throws him open to some suspicion, although he manages to deflect it through most of the play, mainly by his sycophancy and harmless, bumbling persona.  In the first half of the play, before he gains Brandt’s respect he is looked down upon by his colleagues, being described as ‘greasy’ and disparaged for only having experience of running a photocopying shop.  McArdle’s body language in these early scenes is great, he’s always hunched over, almost hiding behind the files he’s sorting through.  He’s seemingly succeeding in becoming ‘part of the furniture’, while behaving manically as narrator while the play is on 'pause'.  As the pressure mounts, McArdle does a great job of showing the stress and guilt caused by espionage and undercover work.  His handler is omnipresent throughout the play, perched smoking just outside of the main action, a constant observer of his actions.  We can almost taste Guillaume's sweat as the pincers close in on him.  This is a not altogether likeable character, after all, his very nature is to lie to those the audience is set up to admire, but McArdle manages to make us feel the pain of his betrayal and his growing guilt and paranoia at being exposed as a spy.

 The rest of the cast all perform admirably, especially William Hoyland as Herbert Wehner, who looks and acts like an sinister Tony Benn.  Also excellent is David Cann, who I pretty much could watch in anything.  The roles outside of Brandt and Guillaume aren’t the most compelling though, especially as they tend to appear onstage as a crowd rather than individually, making their personalities somewhat indistinct.  By far the best scenes in the play are those where Brandt and Guillaume bond one on one, and learn about each other.  The tension of the play ratchets up a few notches whenever it’s just the two of them on stage, and slackens when they’re joined by the crowd.  I suppose if you’re going to do a semi-biopic you need to show these other politicians to tell the full historical story, but from a dramatic point of view they seem to distract the audience, turning our attention away from the central relationship that drives the narrative.

Another interesting aspect of the casting is that this is an all-male play.  I can appreciate the argument that this is necessitated by the patriarchal nature of politics at this time, but there are female characters referred to, we just never see them.  Women in this play are generally relegated to either an element that undermines the characters (Guillaume’s wife’s request for divorce or the prostitutes that play a major part in Brandt’s downfall) or some distant element of a crowd looking up at you.  I’m not entirely sure what the play is trying to achieve by this, it is a curiously sexless piece, seemingly more concerned with politics than romance.  I suppose it is possible that any other romantic bond would distract from the central bond between Brandt and Guillaume, but a total lack of women seems like a deliberate and slightly puzzling decision.

This isn't the most immediately accessible play around.  It throws the audience right into the deep end, and even up until the interval I wouldn’t say that I had a total grasp of what was going on.  In fact, once the interval was over, quite a lot of people didn’t bother coming back for the second half.  I can’t really blame them, there’s about an hour and a half before the interval. If you get that far into a play and it’s not doing anything for you then I think you can be forgiven for giving up on it. 

But this is a shame, while the first half can at times seem like a barely disguised information dump, it pays off in the second half when the play deals with more understandable human interactions and emotions.  It’s a far more interesting play once they don’t need to worry about setting things up, and it fascinatingly explores how different personalities can bond, how we ‘each contain a multitude’ and how political beliefs influence our interactions.

I did have a slight issue with the humour though.  The play has farcical elements, but a lot of laughs come from “are things so different in modern British politics?” subtle winks.  This kind of knowing, ironic humour doesn’t really do much for me, relying as it does on political science injokes that serve to make the people that 'get it' feel clever.  Obviously I don’t have a problem in a play using the events of the past as a mirror of the contemporary government, but these events don’t really work as a point of comparison.  Some of the biggest laughs are gotten from the fact that the Social Democratic Party Brandt belongs to is in a shaky political coalition with the 'Free Democratic Party', who are referred to as “The Liberals”.  This play was written in the early 2000s, but now lines about the Liberals being ‘difficult coalition partners’ cause knowing chuckles in the audience.  It’s unearned laughter, especially as the Liberal Democrats are for the most part very compliant coalition partners.  As far as I can see there is no point of comparison between these two coalitions, and the humour seems to be predicated on the fact that the two parties have the same name.  I guess this is maybe more of a problem with the audience than with the production, but if you’re going to even vaguely suggest that this play is somehow allegorical then I think you should follow through with it. 

(the real) Willy Brandt kneels in contrition in Warsaw
Despite these criticisms, this is, for the most part, a powerful and affecting piece of drama.  A scene where Brandt spontaneously kneels in front of a monument to those killed in the Warsaw ghetto is powerfully staged and lit, and manages to capture the gravitas of the moment.  Other outstanding scenes are a relaxed conversation between Guillaume and Brandt on holiday in Norway, where Brandt very subtly raises the tension and probes Guillaume about the nature of spying - you could hear a pin drop in the theatre!  Even though the Old Vic has a fairly expansive stage, this production manages to capture a cramped atmosphere, a time of meetings in poorly lit offices with bundles of paper everywhere.  A nice factor is the smell of cigarette smoke.  Guillaume’s handler smokes through the play, observing events dispassionately.  The smell adds another sensual layer to the performance, sucking you even further into the past and the complex political and personal power games.

This isn’t a play for everyone.  It’s wilfully hard to follow at first, occasionally a little dull and hardly spectacular to look at. But once you’ve digested the motivations, setting and characters, you’ll find a surprisingly personal, touching and quietly humanistic piece of theatre.

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