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Democracy (STC)

I am large. I contain multitudes - Willy Brandt, quoting Walt Whitman

Democracy starts with the unexpected election of Willy Brandt as Chancellor of West Germany in 1969. It quickly becomes apparent that the central occupying concern of the plot is the country's relationship with East Germany, as seen through the eyes of Brandt's personal assistant and Stasi spy, Günter Guillaume. This, and the title of the play, means that the documented outcome of history thirty years on hangs about the characters like precariously perched statue about to topple.

Michael Frayn isn't afraid to tackle the big subjects - quantum dynamics, uncertainty and history in Copenhagen for instance. Or the complexity of man, social and political democracy in his newest play. It's the man who undergoes closer scrutiny in this play. While the play never gets highly personal in the soap opera sense, Brandt - or Willy as everyone calls him - is put under the microscope more so than the German Federal Republic is.

The play draws on historical accounts to argue that West Germany's "Ostpolitik" during Brandt's time was partly shaped - and partly embraced by East Germany - because Brandt decided to trust Guillaume (even, it's implied, after he had his suspicions about his identity). Guillaume in turn reciprocated this trust and conveyed it to his East German masters. And - like Heisenberg's observer particle - Guillaume is changed by the necessity of interaction with his subject.

Thematically there's more to the play than this of course, but I'd have to read the script or see a production several times to grasp more fully the other threads Frayn weaves into the text.

This production is directed by Michael Blakemore who also defined Copenhagen to the world. Like Copenhagen, Democracy is largely stripped of overt theatrical devices. Like Copenhagen an exception is made for one bombastic effect near the end. I have to say though that the effect wasn't as profound this time because (a) there was an expectation that the play would end with the collapse of the Berlin Wall and (b) I've seen the device used to dramatise this more successfully deployed in other productions, including the STC's own Volpone.

Other, more subtle directorial touches work well. For instance I like how Guillaume's Stasi contact Arno Kretschmann is consistently placed downstage left, the almost everpresent observer. Then, after Guillaume is found out and Kretschmann is arrested, it is Günter who now occupies that position, no longer able to influence events, relegated only to watching and plaintively commenting.

Or I like how Frayn represents the chaotic nature of democracy - "60 million separate Germanies" as Kretschmann distainfully refers to it - through eight different and differing West German characters... nine if you include Günter who falls more than a little in love with Willy and becomes the willing servant of two masters.

In contrast the unified, singular voice of communism is represented only by Kretschmann in dialogue with the conflicted Guillaume. Yet it's that singularity of construction that ultimately brings it down. (Or is it? Not being versed in political science I'd like to think that this is one of the points the play is making: that the infinite diversity of infinite combinations results in a more robust structure than one which insists on orthodoxy and uniformity.)

Paradoxically, the multitudinousness of Germany, of democracy, is also embodied in Brandt himself, not just by his entourage. His flaws and strengths are more complex than Guillaume's simple conflict of being caught between two loyalties. A dynamic personality in public, Brandt suffered from depression, indecisiveness and certain moral weaknesses. There's something of an echo of the "Clinton" of Joe Klein's Primary Colors in both politicians' relationship with their country's public and its women. (In Democracy's case, both public and women are unseen but certainly much felt.) Guillaume has only two identities and two positions. Brandt has many, he contains multitudes.

There's a difference between stage acting and film acting. Stage acting, by necessity, has to be bigger - expressions and voices must project to the back of the auditorium. It becomes more challenging to convey nuance and discreetness. Geoff Kelso as Guillaume however manages to project the "one step behind, one step to the side" obsequious civil servant while at the same time not becoming so bland that his role as narrator and audience representative is lost.

A sign I've been watching too many movies and TV shows, and not enough theatre: many of the performers reminded me of screen actors. Paul Goddard's Kretschmann projects the same ambiguous, aristocratic charm as Michael York, laced with a hint of steel. Helmut Schmidt (Willy's successor) - through Sean Taylor's ruddy-faced "will he or won't he burst a blood vessel?" tantrums rants like The Soprano's Tony Sirico unleashed. As Reinhard Wilke, Brandon Burke pulls faces like a more manly Mr Bean. John Gaden's calculating Herbert Wehner (the feared and respected power broker of the party) recalls Alan Alda's political roles like the ones in The Aviator or The West Wing. And Kelso, especially with those glasses, haircut and general demeanour, reminded me of John Billingsley, Enterprise's best actor.

Philip Quast is the sort of performer who must play big roles; on stage at least where he can't really turn off his bass-baritone resonance. Not just his voice, but also his stature and theatrical style of acting works best in the classics or musical theatre. While he's very good in Democracy - effectively portraying the highs, lows and ambiguities of Willy - I'd argue that even Brandt might just be too constricted a part for him; or the play - a drama of small scale, despite its broad scope - not quite suited to his strengths. He is large. He must contain multitudes.

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on April 28, 2005 3:28 AM.

The previous post in this blog was Der Untergang (Downfall: Hitler and the End of the Third Reich).

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