Thursday, 12 July 2012

Theatre Reviews: 13 July

Michael Frayn’s exposé of Willy Brandt’s role in the Cold War is riveting…

Written by Steve Barfield


A welcome transfer from the Sheffield Crucible, this revival of a masterly play by the versatile Michael Frayn is a Cold War story about modern Germany's greatest statesman, the charismatic, enigmatic, much-loved Willy Brandt (1913-1992). He won the Nobel Peace prize in 1971 for his controversial Neue Ostpolitik policy as Chancellor, which improved relations with the Eastern Bloc and the USSR. Some believe he paved the way for the end of the Cold War, eventual German reunification and the Europe we now live in.

Yet, Brandt's personal assistant, friend and confidant throughout the five years he was Chancellor, was Günter Guillaume, who turned out to be a long-term, deep-cover, sleeper agent for East Germany's feared Stasi (he was sent to West Germany in 1956 and uncovered in 1974): Guillaume's arrest led to Brandt's resignation. Frayn's play thrives on paradoxes and the complexity of human actions.

This moving play is as much a real-life political thriller and fascinating spy story as a study of the relationship between politics, trust and friendship – and an exploration of what can never be understood about the mysteries of human motivation and identity.

Without Guillaume would the East Germans have trusted Brandt's Ostpolitik policy? By instructing Guillaume to help Brandt survive his political coalition did the Stasi pave the way for German reunification and its own destruction? Did Guillaume, who admired the socialist Brandt, adore the man? The Stasi's spy chief Markus Wolf later claimed that Brandt's downfall was their biggest mistake.

Paul Miller's direction is aided by a cleverly designed set by Simon Daw and two central performances – Aidan MacArdle's Guillaume is superb as the perfect non-entity, gaining everyone's trust because he is nondescript, showing the tension of a man serving two masters. Patrick Drury has a harder job to portray Brandt, as he looks little like him. However, his nuanced performance catches something of the statesman's charisma and Hamlet-like indecisiveness and remoteness.

Brandt's decision to kneel silently in repentance when visiting the site of the Warsaw ghetto in 1970 remains the iconic moment when post-War Germany realised it might overcome its terrible past. Ed Hughes's Arno Kretschmann is a memorable 1970s' Stasi controller. Western democracy has seldom been shown as so vital and paradoxical.

The Old Vic, London SE1, until 28 July: 0844-871 7628,

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