A Guide to Modern Playwrights, Plays, and Productions

Michael Frayn’s Democracy at Wyndham's Theatre in London is complex, entertaining, and intellectually stimulating, dealing with West German Chancellor Willy Brandt and the East German spy who loved him, Gunter Guillaume. Opening with Brandt’s election in 1969, it manages to break down complicated historical events (as did Frayn’s “Copenhagen”) by focusing on its two main characters, so different in their public persona and yet sharing similar emotions in their inner lives of alienation. And as we left “Copenhagen” feeling we knew more about nuclear physics than when we entered the theater, so we now learn about Brandt and his struggles to reconcile East and West Germany in the years before the Wall came down. Frayn reminds us that the play is “fiction. . . .[that] does take its rise from the historical record.”

The politics are familiar. Having achieved office, the leader whose goal is peace – here, between the east and west of his divided country -- also must maintain a working relationship between the politicians of the diverse coalition that elected him. Chief among them is conniving older cynic Herbert Wehner (David Ryall) and suave Helmut Schmidt (Glyn Grain), all-too-ready to take over as chancellor. As the office boy, running errands, filing, volunteering to water the plants, describing himself as “nobody,” is East German spy Gunter Guillaume. At first, Brandt wants Gunter fired: “Herr Guillaume…carries ordinariness a little too far;” he tells administrator Reinhard (Paul Gregory), “find me someone else.” But eventually, Brandt comes to depend upon the smiling, obsequious spy who eagerly reports everything to his Stasi controller, Arno, seated at a café table at stage left throughout the action. And during the four years of their association, Gunter rises to become Brandt’s personal assistant, who admires and defends him, even as his every move is reported to the Stasi. Gunter also rises in the estimation of his spymasters, who come to regard him as “the jewel in the crown” of their network.

Mr. Frayn states that the play’s theme is “the complexity of human arrangements and human beings themselves and the difficulties this creates in both shaping and understanding our actions.” Brilliantly performed by Roger Allam, Brandt is indeed complex: charismatic and visionary, yet given to bouts of depression and despair, a head of state who is indecisive, who sends crowds into raptures yet who is unsure which of his persona – he had many aliases while hiding in Norway from the Gestapo – is the real one. Conleth Hill (last seen playing multiple roles in “Stones in His Pockets”) is perfect as Guilllaume, the clever servant who rises from “gofer” to personal assistant, with just the right combination of contempt for the “chief” and adulation that approaches love. Like Mephistopheles, he encourages Brandt’s womanizing, tempting him to excess. He revels in his dual roles – interrupting a confidence from Brandt to joyously report it to his pale, humorless controller, well played by Steven Pacey.

In one scene, as the two travel together on the chancellor’s special train, Guillaume points out to Brandt that they are alike in being fatherless, and in both having teen-aged sons named Peter and Pierre. Brandt confides to his aide the many identities he assumed while hiding in Norway: “I could have been a spy. Might be one, for all you know. Might be spying now.” Yet in a poignant passage, he relates how as a schoolboy abandoned by his father he left Germany to assume other names, other roles, until nothing remained but the school cap of the lost boy Herbert Frahm: “The boy I might have been, and never was.” Developing the metaphor of the journey and the quest, he compares himself to “a suitcase with a series of false bottoms.”

Director Michael Blakemore keeps the action moving rhythmically, preserving the tension, the irony, and the humor. Even the split-level set by Peter J. Davison symbolizes complexity, with its row upon row of pigeonholes against the office walls and a twisting spiral staircase between the levels. The upper level that sees Brandt idolized by a cheering crowd also serves as the locale for a crumpled leader sunk deep in depression.

The bumbling of intelligence officers is nothing new: Brandt’s own undercover men are unable to discover the mole in their midst because they misinterpret the clues they have possessed for nearly four years. When they finally unravel the obvious, Guillaume is arrested. He declares on the spot that he is indeed a citizen of East Germany. What brings Brandt down, though, is the detailed account of his womanizing kept by his own intelligence agents and their fear that Guillaume, now exposed and jailed, might possess additional material about these liaisons – like photographs – with which to blackmail the government. It is this fear that prompts the resignation of Brandt, the man who contributed so much to reuniting his country by replacing hatred and mistrust between East and West through preaching reconciliation and compassion. Even as Guillaume cries out from his cell that he never betrayed Brandt, “not me, chief, not me,” he takes comfort in realizing that their names will be linked in history: “wherever he goes, my shadow goes with him, together still.”

Just as Brandt uses gestures, not words, to mark occasions of import, like kneeling to ask forgiveness of holocaust victims, so dialogue is absent from the play’s finale. A sound of chipping away, described first as termites, becomes louder and louder, until it crescendos into a resounding crash, as the Berlin Wall comes down.