Review of Democracy

12th September 2003


Jane Edwardes and John Nathan applaud Michael Frayn’s complex account of high-level politics and espionage in 1960s West Germany. David Benedict hosts.

This play does for federal German politics what Copenhagen did for nuclear physics – absolutely fascinating.



Recorded: 12 September 2003.

Transcribed by the V&A © This transcript is copyright of the Trustees of the Victoria and Albert Museum. If you wish to refer to this in publication its reference is DEMOCRACY and you must quote the url in your address bar.


David Benedict: This is theatreVOICE and I’m David Benedict. With me, to discuss Democracy, Michael Frayn’s latest play for the National Theatre, are Jane Edwardes, Theatre Editor of TimeOut, and John Nathan of The Jewish Chronicle.

Truth, as the old adage has it, is stranger than fiction, and you really couldn’t have made this one up. The opening scene of Democracy begins on the 21st October 1969 with the surprise election of Willy Brandt as Chancellor, making him West Germany’s first left-of-centre leader in almost 40 years. Although the play ostensibly charts the four years of his premiership, Frayn has other fish to fry. He places this extraordinary true story in the hands of a narrator, one Günther Guillaume, who a) was a minor office gopher who spent the years making himself ever more indispensable as Brandt’s right-hand-man, and b) turns out to have spent those four years leaking secrets back to Soviet-controlled East Germany via a Stasi spymaster. The uncovering of this servant of two masters in 1973 caused an international political scandal, and three months before the post-Watergate Richard Nixon did likewise, Willy Brandt resigned.

After his chillingly impressive performance as Hitler, quite the best thing in David Edgar’s weighty and unwieldy dramatisation of Albert Speer, Roger Allam returns to Germany at the National Theatre to play Brandt. Conleth Hill, most famous for his multi-award-winning work in the original production of Stones in his Pockets, plays Guillaume.

John Nathan, Michael Frayn’s last play Copenhagen was rooted in real life events. Has he found another dramatic route through history?

John Nathan: Yes, I think he has, most definitely. I think you could say that Democracy does for federal German politics what Copenhagen did for nuclear physics, and that is make it very interesting and very immediate.

DB: Jane, interesting and immediate, is this a dramatic route through history for you?

Jane Edwardes: Yes, but I couldn’t say that it’s not hard work. I mean you don’t have to keep up with the intricacies and complexities of Frayn’s own mind which is several stages ahead of most of us. I think the main drama comes out of the way that the spy moves in and out of the chancery to report to his contact on the side.

DB: I think that that is absolutely its huge structural bonus in that instead of merely trotting through this chronologically and having all the detail acted out in situ, Conleth Hill as Guillaume darts in and out. We have Steven Pacey on one side of the stage asking him what’s happening next. Everything’s introduced; it seems to me that it’s a masterly piece of exposition. Did you manage to keep ahead of that enormous cast of characters and all the details of German politics?

JN: Well exposition is the word because Frayn’s got a lot of work to do in telling us a lot of information about the Social Democrat liberal coalition. Yet the man that is Frayn is incapable of writing an uninteresting sentence, and somehow all of this is made to keep our interest, when in fact coalition politics dramatically could most probably be as dry as dust.

DB: Jane to you think that’s all down to Frayn, or where do you think [director] Michael Blakemore stands in this equation?

JE: I think Michael Blakemore sort of weaves his way through the material, and gives it the energy that it needs, I mean Frayn is a very lucid, beautiful writer, on the other hand he doesn’t always write as people speak. I mean, we don’t speak in those beautiful sentences on the whole so that you have to inject some vitality into it and I think Blakemore did that. But there is also that spying is an inherently dramatic subject I think because it is a performance, so in a way it’s about theatre in itself. The only thing I thought that Blakemore possibly went too far was, and it’s becoming a bit of a cliché, is the sort of collapse of all the shelves at the end…

DB: Yes the visual production…

JE: … Every production we go and see nowadays has a visual cue at the end, maybe if that wasn’t the case we would have liked it, but in this case I thought it was overdone.

DB: It does seem to me, what’s interesting is that of course directors get almost no credit on new plays; if you direct a revival everyone talks about what you did with the show, if you direct a new play everyone says, “What a marvellous play Michael Frayn has written.” I feel that Blakemore has done an extraordinary job on this, there’s not a single stage direction in the original text, and that pace that you talk about, the energy rather, absolutely enlivens the exposition. Although I also think that Frayn is really canny in that he puts that exposition there and makes no bones about it. Other plays deal with “Oh, I’ve got to get this information across” rather shamefacedly, and try to pretend they’re not doing it. What’s really interesting to me is that you get all that information and you consciously feel like you’re being fed it, that Conleth Hill virtually dances about the stage animating people almost like a puppet master, telling you what you need to know, you’re very aware of it. And then the play gets going.

JN: But I think that’s partly because you’re not only being fed information you’re being fed ideas and issues, from since the redefining of the word Left comes into it, and that’s something that very much is what this country is going through now. And you have one character, Ehmke, who was the person who appointed Guillaume in the position that he manages to spy from, and he says, “What have the Communists got to do with the Left?”, as if he’s disassociating the Social Democrats, you know, from any stigma that’s Left. You know this is one of the ideas that Frayn manages to weave into the exposition.

DB: Historical plays are absolutely as much about the time in which they’re written as the time that they depict. Do you think this is a play about the Left and the current government in disguise?

JE: Well there are lots of topical echoes there; I mean there’s quite a lot of fun to be had out of spotting them. I don’t think he overdoes it though, and I don’t think you really do want to overdo it. I mean, I think there is a slight obsession these days with having to see topical echoes in everything, and I think there’s a genuine interest in this story for what it is. And there is a great joy when you go to the theatre and you actually come out having learnt something, it doesn’t always happen by any means.

DB: I think I am one of only two people on the entire planet that loathed Copenhagen, and I was shocked at how much I enjoyed Democracy, and how little I felt that I was having ideas grafted onto my brain. I felt really engaged with this play. Is it just the matter of it being a spy drama, that it’s got a thriller structure perhaps, is that something that you felt?

JE: Well I did like Copenhagen so I can’t make the same contrast as you are, of why Democracy works and Copenhagen didn’t, because I think Copenhagen did. I mean, certainly that does have an added tension, although they make very little of the revealing that he is a spy, it’s more what it does to Guillaume himself than to Brandt. I wonder if one of the … I mean, we haven’t really discussed Brandt, I mean I did have slight problems there in the fact that he was so unknowable, I thought it was incredibly difficult for Roger Allam to pull it off and I’m not sure he altogether did.

JN: I liked Roger Allam’s performance, there was a sense of a political instinct which is normally associated with a ruthlessness that politicians tend to have. But with Brandt, and with Allam, there was sense that there was a lot of sincerity there, and that is a very difficult line to tread. I mean, knowing when to do the right thing, when to do the right gesture, and for it not to appear to be contrived, but sincere.

JE: But there was also the sense of depression and a sense of, kind of, hollowness that he didn’t really know who he was, I think that is very difficult, I think it might have helped maybe if we’d actually seen a bit of the womanising or something, although of course there are no women in the play and it’s very much a chorus of men in suits.

JN: I hadn’t noticed, really?

DB: Conleth Hill: a surprise to you?

JE: He was terrific but how they didn’t spot him, I don’t know. Anybody in that suit should have been picked out as an East German…

DB: He’s described as looking like the manager of a pornographic bookshop, and he’s in this smarmy suit which is ever so slightly too small for him. It’s a rather brilliant piece of design by Peter Davidson.

JE: It’s classic, classic Communist suit of that time, isn’t it? They should have noticed.

JN: I’m afraid I’m in a minority, as you felt with Copenhagen, I didn’t much like Conleth Hill’s performance, I thought it was curiously camp in a way that just begged more questions than it answered. I mean I don’t know enough about Guillaume to know if it was an accurate portrayal, but I just kept thinking, why is this ingratiating camp-ness being used, and it seemed to make an exaggeration, whereas Roger Allam’s performance seemed very understated by comparison.

DB: John Nathan, Jane Edwardes, thank you very much.