Democracy — Michael Frayn

This absorbing drama follows the rise and fall of the man who brought down the Berlin Wall. Well, perhaps I am overstating things, but Willy Brandt, West German Chancellor in the early ’70s, was a crucial figure in the years leading up to the fall of the Berlin Wall. The play depicts the political manoeuvring going on around Brandt, particularly by his secretary Guenter Guillaume, who was also an East German double agent.

It’s interesting how Brandt was built up (by himself and others) to be almost an iconic public figure, while all along he lacked the real substance to back it up, eventually being brought down by tawdry scandals. Guillaume, the spy, tries all along to do what he sees as the right thing. He meets his downfall too, but not before his great work is in place. As the conduit of so much information between East and West for so many years, he had a huge influence on policy of both countries. It almost seems as if reunification wouldn’t have happened without him. So much power vested in one minor unelected official — so much for democracy. The play has a lot to say about how democracy works — and doesn’t work.

There are a few interesting devices, such as the East German spymaster whom only Guillaume can see, but for the most part this play consists of men in suits talking to each other. (This is especially apparent when the play ends, as the cast taking their bows look just like an accountancy firm partners’ meeting — apart from the East German character’s dowdy brown suit!) Still, it’s thoroughly engrossing as a tale of political intrigue, a low-key spy thriller, even a thought-provoking history lesson.

A footnote (or possibly kneenote): There has been some controversy over this play’s portrayal of Brandt’s gesture at the Warsaw War Memorial ceremony, where he knelt in contrition over German atrocities during World War II. In some productions, Brandt apparently kneels on only one knee, thus diluting the power of the gesture. I am happy to report that Sydney Theatre’s Brandt executes the full two-kneed manoeuvre.

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