‘Democracy’ uses its title several times in the course of this story that can’t quite make up its mind where its emphasis ought to be.
Set in the era prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union, its focus is on the relationship between West German Chancellor Willi Brandt (Tom Hodgkins) and Gunther Guillaume, (Neil Caple) personal assistant, publicist, fixer and a double agent working for the East German Stasi.
Although the subject and subjects of the play will be fairly familiar to many of those who lived through the times depicted, some exposition is required, reducing parts of the play to telling rather than showing and slowing the action. This is particularly the case in the first act, which opens with the election of Brandt to the Chancellorship having been the West Berlin mayor in post when President John F. Kennedy visited the city.
Although popular with many, Brandt was seen as a progressive figure whose modernising tendencies startled more conservative figures in his own party, the Social Democrats. These tendencies are ably interpreted by Stewart Porter playing Hans-Dietrich Gensher, Jack Lord playing Helmut Shmidt and Sean Scanlon the eminence grise Herbert Wehner.
It is the relationship between Brandt and Guillaume that takes centre stage, however, although for this reviewer, at least, this ultimately failed to fully convince.
Despite several exchanges between Caple’s Guillaume and his East German handler Arno Kretschmann (Michael Moreland), the sense of dedication to a cause wasn’t effectively communicated, leaving us to puzzle Guillaume’s actual motives, his apparent friendship with Brandt, as well as his relationships with his wife and son, all of which left a large hole his inner tensions might have been.
Perhaps more than anything else, a sense of loss over a dismembered Germany, although touched on, never got as close to the heart of the play as it might have done; the irony, one might say tragedy, on both sides of the imposed division of a country, each struggling with the implications of this, became one more theme picked over before being discarded.
One senses the huge ambition of Frayn’s play from the outset, which only makes frustration with its shortcomings greater. Both Brandt and the age he dominated, so crucial to the vision of a united and peaceful Europe he and others helped to bring about, shows no sign of diminishing with the passage of time and needs, as perhaps never before, both explanation and celebration.
It’s only a pity that somewhere between inspiration and execution so much of this is lost.
Runs til Sat 1 October