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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Old Vic


  Richard Hope/ Ph: Tristram Kenton

When Michael Frayn’s play about Willy Brandt’s four-and-half years as German chancellor opened at the National Theatre in 2003, it was much admired for making political history into toothsome drama. This new production by Paul Miller – which marks Frayn’s impending 80th birthday and transfers to London after a successful run at the Sheffield Crucible – is somewhat short on fizz, but it still offers a fascinating insight into late Cold War realpolitik on the road to a nation’s reunification, and into the flawed personalities involved in that hard-fought process.
We begin with Brandt’s election in 1969, and already it’s obvious that he has his work cut out. His government is an uneasy and unstable coalition – a situation that strikes a resounding chord with British audiences under our own wobbly Lib-Dem and Conservative alliance – and it even contains a few downright crooks: The head of security was a convicted murderer on the other side of the Berlin Wall. But what Willy doesn’t know is that Gunter Guillaume, a servile minor functionary in his office, is in fact a Stasi spy whose reports to his boss, Arno Kretschmann, form the backbone of Frayn’s narrative.
Guillaume’s job is to keep Brandt in power and to track his movements and actions. As he inveigles himself into ever more intimate situations with the Chancellor, he becomes almost as seduced by his glamour and charisma as the starry-eyed women in the front row at his rallies. As they tour the country together, Guillaume regards himself as Sancho Panza to Brandt’s Don Quixote, or devoted assistant to a magician. Yet Brandt’s view of his seemingly efficient factotum is rather less flattering. Guillaume is, he says, a greasy meatball who “looks like the manager of a pornographic bookshop.” It’s a curious relationship, emotionally one-sided since Brandt doesn’t return Guillaume’s admiration and affection, yet in a sense mutually dependent; and around it swirl complex political machinations and dangerously compromising rumours about Brandt’s personal life, in particular his drinking and sexual adventuring.
Patrick Drury has stature and incisive wit as Brandt, and Aidan McArdle is absorbing as Guillaume, enthusiastically serving his communist masters but gradually turning that energy into his efforts to win Brandt’s approval – longing to be not just a trusted colleague, but a friend of the man to whom he is constantly lying. It is a fascinatingly complex kind of betrayal. There’s strong work from the supporting cast, too, with William Hoyland exerting an especially creepy power as the éminence grise of the party, Herbert Wehner, a hectoring, sharp-tongued former communist known with queasy familiarity as “Uncle.”
But this is still a hefty piece of writing, in which the blend of action and speechifying isn’t always entirely smooth, and the pace can be a little too stolid. It is interesting rather than exciting, solid rather than scintillating. And Miller’s production, though smartly acted and efficiently staged, doesn’t quite succeed in lighting a fire under Frayn’s socio-historical kindling. As a result, the play smoulders, but never burns as brightly as it should.


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