Mrs Chrisparkle and I love our occasional jaunts up to Sheffield, not least because the Crucible Theatre offers such a flexible space for meaty drama. This year their Michael Frayn season featured three plays, all of which were new to both of us. Alas, we couldn’t fit in seeing Copenhagen, but we made up for it by seeing both Democracy and Benefactors on the same day.
West German Chancellor Willy Brandt had an eye for the ladies and was supreme at simple evocative gestures on public appearances that made him a natural political leader. Unfortunately he and his team were not as adept at identifying and weeding out spies in their midst. Günther Guillaume was an East German spy who infiltrated the West German government and indeed worked closely alongside Brandt whilst copying virtually every internal document and sending it back to his East German spymaster Kretschmann via his wife Christel, in order to please the (never seen) big boss Mischa.
Visually, this production offers a very simple presentation, with basic furniture and props, and excellent attention to detail in the business suit costume department. Director Paul Miller uses the big Crucible stage as a blank canvas for the interactions between the Chancellor and Ministers and the spy, with small corners at the edges of the stage depicting Brandt’s office, Guillaume’s office, the cabinet room and Kretschmann’s office. All the time that Guillaume is talking to the ministers he is also talking to Kretschmann, plainly demonstrating the very stark reality of the act of espionage – its ease and naturalness, and the way in which in fact it appears remarkably unsecretive. It’s a very effective way of showing Guillaume’s two-timing nature. Whenever a new minister is introduced, Guillaume reports the fact back to Kretschmann, who flings out another secret dossier on his office floor. The infiltration is all so obvious to us; which gives the dramatic intensity to the fact that Brandt’s team can’t see it.
Eventually the bumbling security department begin to twig, and to decide how to cope with the knowledge of the spy in the midst. There’s a wonderful scene between Brandt and Guillaume in the Norwegian countryside, where Brandt, now deeply suspicious that Guillaume is a spy, tells him about his youthful days, and how he too worked undercover – but without quite accusing, just letting suggestions hang in the air for Guillaume to deflect as best he can. Not long after that Guillaume is arrested and under the glare of a blinding white light he is captured and immediately confesses. In the future, East Germany, along with the rest of the Iron Curtain states, is no more; and the play questions the point of sacrificing oneself and ones family for the State. It’s a very well written and thought-provoking play.
It’s also extremely well performed. Patrick Drury as Brandt has a quiet arrogance that becomes noble when impressing a crowd but can make for a tough cookie when he is dealing with colleagues. When things go wrong he acquires a weakness that is virtually tangible. Telling Guillaume of his enigmatic past in Norway he becomes curiously manipulative. Like Walt Whitman, he is large; he contains multitudes. It’s all completely believable.
As Guillaume, Aidan McArdle hits exactly the right note of slightly weaselly subservience with Brandt, but with clarity and confidence in his dealings with Kretschmann. As he gets further in to his deception, he finds he has a loyalty to both his masters and the only way to satisfy this loyalty is to sacrifice himself. With slightly maniacal hair and a vaguely shabbier suit than his colleagues he is subtly presented as being from a different world from the rest of them; his East German roots inspiring snobbery from the other ministers, apart from his gullible champion Ehmke, a wonderfully positive and open performance from Richard Hope. Mr Hope even accepts Brandt’s turning his back on him and his demotion to being in charge of the Post Office with a charming innocent brightness.
Other excellent performances come from William Hoyland as irascible pipe-smoking party leader Herbert Wehner, delightfully scheming and pompous; David Mallinson as Helmut Schmidt, every inch a politician; and Ed Hughes as East German Kretschmann, his leather jacket and casual appearance adding to his visible foreignness, at times frustrated by and jealous of Guillaume’s hands-on honour of performing this noble espionage for the Good of the East German State.
The performance we saw was captioned by Stagetext. I’ve not seen this before – basically, on a screen either side of the stage, the script scrolls up so you can read what the cast are saying. I found myself reading it more than I would have expected. As someone who occasionally can find it a little difficult to catch everything that gets spoken on stage I can definitely see how it could help one’s theatregoing experience. It also reveals when the cast make minor slip ups with the words though – and that happened a lot more than I would have predicted!
I’d definitely recommend this production of this stimulating play, well performed and directed, which will certainly have you thinking and analysing on the way home.