By Matt Williamson
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This article is over 11 years, 10 months old
Michael Frayn is a bit of a rarity: he writes both good novels and good plays. His backstage farce Noises Off has been playing to great reviews in the West End, while novels such as Spies have achieved widespread acclaim.
Issue 371

Now the Old Vic has revived Frayn’s 2003 play Democracy. It’s a political thriller – with the emphasis definitely on politics. The production tackles the true story of the relationship between 1970s West German chancellor Willy Brandt and Gunter Guillaume, a Stasi spy who infiltrated his inner circle and inadvertently caused Brandt’s downfall. It can be a bit heavy going at times, but it’s worth it. This is a gripping espionage thriller that also serves as a timely meditation on modern politics.

The play is driven by the two lead actors. If Patrick Drury’s Brandt was a little lacklustre in the first half, he more than made up for it in the second. Aidan McArdle’s performance as Guillaume is the perfect mixture of geeky inconspicuousness and genuine conviction.

In Frayn’s hands their growing friendship is not simply the emotional context to Guillaume’s betrayal – it also carries a powerful political punch. As the bond between the two men becomes stronger, the audience is encouraged to see parallels between them. The contrast between Brandt’s speeches and the bitterness of his private thoughts mirrors the double life of the spy. Espionage and politics become just two different types of performance.

This play is also about class. The world Guillaume infiltrates is one of middle-aged, middle class men in suits, who have “dumped the Marxism” of their party’s past. They are lawyers and university professors who have little in common with the grassroots support which has swept them to power.

This gives working class Guillaume his chance. The arrogance of the Social Democratic Party intellectuals means they simply cannot conceive of him as a threat. Indeed, they welcome his presence because they think he represents a connection to working class Germans. Their distance from their own base is at the root of their downfall. It feels like a lesson written with New Labour in mind.

It’s easy to see why the play has been revived. Democracy’s central concern with the business of coalition government makes it in some ways more relevant now than when it was first performed. There were knowing laughs from the audience in response to comments about the declining fortunes of the Liberals. But above all, the play is a refreshingly honest take on reformism.

The script is darkly witty, and its depiction of the opportunism and hypocrisy of Brandt’s cabinet is pitch perfect. The structure becomes slightly less focused towards the end, but in general this is a tightly plotted thriller that leaves you with plenty to think about. As left reformism once again starts to make gains at the ballot box, Democracy is well worth watching.

Democracy is at the Old Vic theatre now

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