Magazine article The Spectator

Theatre Double Vision

Magazine article The Spectator

Theatre Double Vision

Article excerpt

Democracy Old Vic, until 28 July The Taming of the Shrew Shakespeare's Globe, in rep until 13 October Michael Frayn is a schizophrenic. His creative personality bestrides the English Channel. When he's at home he writes traditional West End farces with amusing titles and plenty of jokes. When he sits at his European desk he comes up with dour, static, talkheavy historical dramas with boring titles and no jokes at all. Democracy, written in 2003, is a classic Euro-bureau production.

Frayn invites us to examine Willy Brandt's stewardship of West Germany in the early 1970s. Willy is referred to throughout as 'Villy' which, for some reason, sounds even more silly than just Willy.

Chancellor Villy has a couple of problems. He's an idealist and he wants the free world to embrace the eastern bloc and to give the misunderstood Soviets a big, warm, sloppy hug. His other problem is that his assistant, Gunter Guillaume, is an East German spy. Yet this isn't much of a snag for Villy. It's just a quirky detail that adds a frisson of tension to one or two scenes. Otherwise it scarcely affects the action at all. The play, misdescribed as a thriller, offers no suspense or excitement and has no conflict of motives or intentions anywhere.

The story and the setting are laboriously set forth by jabbering woodentop actors who bustle in and out exchanging slabs of dialogue and adding lots of background guff. Villy, we're told, is a charismatic visionary and a serial womaniser. But there are no women on stage. And there's no vision and not much charisma either. The ending, with Villy losing power and East Germany imploding, is a little short of surprises.

Frayn's love of Brandt is understandable in the context of the early 1970s. Take a glance around the world and see who else was in charge. Nixon, Brezhnev, Pompidou, Heath, Franco, Gaddafi, Pinochet and Mao.

An epic list of crooks, mugs, murderers and muppets. And in that company, any democratic hack would look like a statesman of grace and principle. But I have to say I'd had my fill of Villy long before the interval.

Many play-goers seized their chance and wandered off into the latest summer monsoon. Did I join them? Villy nearly. But no, I trudged back in, and folded down my chair, and watched as the rigid figures marched around the stage like mechanical men striking the hours on some ornamental townsquare clock. A strange play, this. Loved by critics. …

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