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Theatre Journal 56.2 (2004) 308-309



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Democracy. By Michael Frayn. Royal National Theatre, Cottesloe Theatre, London. 18 October 2003.

The action of Michael Frayn's fine new play Democracy takes place within the context of West German coalition politics during Willy Brandt's landmark Chancellorship years. This potentially sprawling subject is given riveting dramatic interest and focus by centering on the intertwined personal stories of Brandt and Günter Guillaume, the East German spy who rose to become Brandt's personal assistant and whose discovery was used as the excuse for Brandt's eventual political downfall. However, the play's real subject is neither politics, the machinations of a spy thriller, nor—despite the title—democracy. Rather it is, as Frayn states in a program note, complexity: ". . . the complexity of human arrangements and of human beings themselves, and the difficulties that this creates in both shaping and understanding our actions."

Frayn also writes that he has long been fascinated and even moved by Germany's postwar emergence as of one of Europe's most prosperous, stable, and decent states, a marvel achieved, furthermore, by building it out of its own literal and figurative postwar rubble while faced with considerably more complexity than is the experience of most other countries. This is the context but, as Frayn carefully notes, the play is fiction even though grounded in the basic facts of a thoroughly researched history.

What we have in Democracy is another example illustrating Frayn's frequent statement that there is a philosophical basis to all his plays. Specifically, here he is using the historical situation to explore the impossible task that we humans have in ever fully describing or comprehending the world around us even though we are compulsively driven to pursue that elusive goal by describing, classifying, and ordering bits of our reality. This idea features prominently in Constructions, his 1973 work of philosophy. While the play's subject is complexity, I do not mean to imply that Democracy should be seen primarily as philosophy, for it is above all a fine piece of theatre, the creation of a superb dramatic craftsman whose intention is to provide us with a drama of compelling interest.

To be sure, it is compelling. By using the Brandt-Guillaume relationship to give voice and focus to the larger situation, Frayn unifies such elements as the shifting and mixed motives of Brandt's cabinet members, those of other aides, and the complications of a functioning democratic governance. Layers of complexity continually unfold as we watch Guillaume insinuate himself ever closer to Brandt, it becoming clearer as the action progresses that both men have complicated personalities and motives that neither fully understands in himself or in others. One might wish to see some resolution of these ambiguities but in fact one of the strengths of Democracy is the absence of such answers. Frayn has the ability, like Chekhov, to keep his own voice from intruding upon that of his characters. They are always allowed to act for themselves instead of becoming the didactic proponents of any particular thesis of the author's.

Frayn uses direct audience addresses to provide necessary expository or transitional material, moving the complicated action forward with a deft theatrical economy. As in his earlier Benefactors and Copenhagen, this device also reveals how much of the self may be hidden from our consciousness. Although Guillaume is fully engaged in the action [End Page 308] and far from being a narrator, the bulk of these direct addresses are his. He seamlessly turns from interacting or eavesdropping while a government aide in the Chancellor's office to talking with Arno Kretschmann, his East German control, while the other characters remain onstage.

(L to R) Roger Allam (as Willy Brandt), Glyn Grain(as Helmut Schmidt), Paul Broughton (as Ulrich Bauhaus), Conleth Hill (as Günter Guillaume), David Ryall (as Herbert Wehner), in Michael Frayn's Democracy. Photo: Conrad Blakemore.
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Figure 1
(L to R) Roger Allam (as Willy Brandt), Glyn Grain(as Helmut Schmidt), Paul Broughton (as Ulrich Bauhaus), Conleth Hill (as Günter Guillaume), David Ryall (as Herbert Wehner), in Michael Frayn's Democracy. Photo: Conrad Blakemore.

Director Michael Blakemore, who has staged seven other Frayn plays, has carefully choreographed his actors in and out of scenes in overlapping fashion, yet it is...

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