by Margaret Croyden

"Democracy" by Michael Frayn-- Talk is Cheap

Photo of Margaret Croyden
Margaret Croyden is a theater reviewer and essayist for the New York Theatre Wire.
"Democracy" by Michael Frayn
Directed by Michael Blakemore
Brooks Atkinson Theatre, West 47th Street  or
opened November 18, 2004
Reviewed November 20, 2004 by Margaret Croyden

Michael Frayn, the author of "Democracy," has had plenty of P.R. Profiled in the "New Yorker," "The Daily News," the "Times" and in countless British publications, his play comes to New York in a blaze of good London notices. Besides he is the author of "Copenhagen," produced a few seasons ago, that caused a controversy. And hopefully "Democracy" will as well. Frayn is one of those British authors worshiped by British intellectuals (some, not all) and is a shoe-in for Broadway producers who love heady plays provided they originate in London and receive sensational reviews. Frayn is sure to be devoured by the press and by those who think this is an important play. Which it isn't.

In fact the play is shockingly boring, and completely untheatrical.  For almost three hours people talk--endlessly--about German politics during the late sixties and early seventies, when Willie Brandt was Chancellor of West Germany and was betrayed by the East German spy, Gunter Guillaume, who had attained a high position in Brandt's office.  The play also tries to show that Willie Brandt was a womanizer, a heavy drinker, and suffered depression and ambivalence, as he tried to steer Germany toward maintaining their newly formed democracy.  But we do not see a believable character in action. Brandt's dilemma, his personality, and the political conditions during his tenure are discussed and argued endlessly but never dramatized. And the story then becomes impossible to follow with its complicated array of the numerous parties involved, and the varying positions of its members.  It is also almost impossible to identify all the cabinet members as they argue, scheme, backbite, and connive.  In fact it is almost impossible to know what Willy Brandt stood for at all, and what the point of the play is with this mishmash of German politics more than thirty years ago.  And do we care?  And do we want to sit for almost three hours listening to all this? 

Well Michael Frayn cares. On many occasions he expressed his longtime interest in Germany, so somewhere Frayn was trying to say something (unclearly) about the messiness of the Germans putting together a democracy after their defeat in World War II.  And somewhere Frayn is trying to humanize Brandt's character as well as the spy's. That might have worked if the play had action. But we learn about Brandt's failings through others who talk about his womanizing, his drinking, and his weaknesses. There are no women in the play, so one never sees Brandt's sexual problems which, in the end, helped to defeat him and forced his resignation.

As for the spy who, at the end, comes in from the cold--he is humanized, sentimentalized, and depicted as if he were on equal moral grounds with Brandt. Which is one of the tricks that Frayn uses in his plays; he takes no real stand--everyone has his reasons, everyone is equal to each other--no one is guilty, no one is responsible.  For example, in "Copenhagen." Frayn sentimentalized the Nazi atomic scientist Werner Heisenberg and equated him with Niels Boer, the Danish physicist, when clearly we knew the German's intentions. In "Democracy", Frayn implies that this slimy spy actually helped Brandt achieve his ends--the unification of Germany. But was it unification with the communists, or regime change, or accommodation with the East that Brandt wanted?  All unclear.  And what did the spy actually have to do with it?  We do know that The Wall came down years later not as a result of Brandt's or Guillaume's work, but because East Germany and its master, the Soviet Union, were rotting from the inside.  But Frayn attempts to relate the past to the present, so that at the end of the play, the wall collapses in front of us. But the effect is artificial and patently unbelievable. 

A major mistake was to cast James Naughton in the lead role of Willy Brandt. Brandt was a very large personality, a handsome, compelling chiasmatic sexy guy who had the capacity to tame a crowd and elicit love and admiration from his people. James Naughton, regrettably, has not got the presence needed to fulfill this tall order. He has neither the charm, nor the physique, nor the looks, nor the drive; he does not convince one that he could control a crowd, or that he is an intellectual left wing thinker, a man of principle and a daring politician. Naughton is too tame, too weak, too pallid, and the few scenes showing Brandt as a leader are so unimpressive that it is hard to believe in Brandt as a fiery personality who could capture the public's love and devotion. Or why he was so important to the Germans. (And to Michael Frayn) 

Richard Thomas in the role of the spy is extremely monotonous; With the longest wordy part in the play, Thomas' voice never changes, and he seems more like a Midwestern American weasel than a clever German spy.  Most of the time we see him  talking to his controller (Michael Cumpsty) who sits in a corner of the stage almost the entire evening.  Poor Michael Crumpsty, who plays the controller, has no real role. He is relegated to the side of the stage and gives instructions to his spy. Period.  From a dramatic point of view we do not see what drives either one of these men. They are, in fact, cardboard figures.

But are the actors to blame?  What did Michael Frayn give them to hang on to?  Talk and plenty of it. What did director Michael Blakemore give them to work with?  A ridiculous set with red and blue empty boxes (were they trying to ape our election). And what about the scenes on a train performed by putting some folding chairs together. Color? Forget about that--the only color are the many glasses of fake red wine that the actor playing Brandt has to drink to show his alcohol problem.  And why one never sees Brandt's wife, or mistresses, and only hears about them through the mouths of others, is a sure way to dull a play.

So what have we got? Another play from London that will be sold to American audiences as serious theater. And I suppose everyone will think this is the "in" play that must be seen. As for me, this is one play that should be seen only is you have difficulty sleeping. Because this will surely give you a good nap.   [Croyden]

Margaret Croyden's most recent book is "Conversations With Peter Brook, 1970-2000" published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

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