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Last Updated: Monday, 15 September, 2003, 13:42 GMT 14:42 UK
Democracy
Democracy
Michael Frayn's play which dramatises the true story of how - at the exact time that Watergate was happening in America - Germany was enduring its own farcical scandal of political eavesdropping.

(Edited highlights of the panel's review taken from the teletext subtitles that are generated live for Newsnight Review.)


MARK LAWSON:
I can only go to one man on this, the man who knows about high political office and indeed nervousness in the leader's office. Has he got politics right?

MICHAEL PORTILLO:
Spectacularly right. I thought it really rang true. There is some wonderful representation in this. There is a great figure who in our political terms would be the chief whip, the leader in Parliament for them. A really cynical character who's not at all interested in policies, he is just interested in majorities and whipping the boys into line and who finds that Willy Brandt is just completely exhausting and enraging because he is a ditherer, he's indecisive, he's a peacemaker. Wonderful ambiguities in the relationships between the characters and I thought many of the ups and downs of politics were beautifully represented too. There is a stupendous election victory and it leads to the most maudlin moment of the whole play. They see all their problems ahead of them. They have a party which actually longs to be defeated, it's so much easier to have defeat and not have to have responsibility. There were so many of the high aspects of politics which he understood beautifully.

LISA JARDINE:
This is a magnificent play. I love listening to Michael talking about the politics, but this is a brilliantly crafted play. I sort of myself wish that Frayn would stick to plays, because I think his plays are sensational. This play gives us politics in a way that the non-political can grasp the intensity of relationships in a horrible way generating policy and politics. Our whole future lies in the hands of Gunter Guillaume and Willy Brandt, and their dance of death really into which they are locked. Of course to all of us in the audience, I am afraid we could see Blair. That's what Frayn was doing. He was doing the leader with feet of clay and the men grouped around him.

LAWSON:
I know a lot of people are saying this, but I thought it was much more Clinton, that you have the idea of this womaniser who also has fantastic political skills. It was much more Clintonian?

JARDINE:
Yes, if you look at the literal, if you look at the story, but I think if you look at the shape, look at the man who has headaches - the man who isn't perfect and yet can stand silently in the window of a train and get rapturous applause. That's the scary thing. And all around him are these dreadful men and the womanising.

LAWSON:
Virtually all critics have said it's about Tony Blair. Do you think it is, Michael?

PORTILLO:
No. I thought Frayn probably picked up a couple of phrases about press officers and manipulation, which today would get a laugh because of the circumstances. I don't want to be too political, but Brandt is a real visionary. He really has one idea, which is to reconcile the two halves of Germany. That is a bigger idea than we are familiar with in British politics today and that's really what gives him the charisma. It is the certainty of that vision. I think that is actually quite foreign. One of the things this play does is to make us interested in Germany. Frayn has this obsession that we are only interested in Nazism. Germany since the war is a sort of human miracle of success as a state.

IAN MCMILLAN:
I think I must have had my Damien Hirst head on while watching it because, the visual images in it excited me. Then the politics, as Michael said, happening really - men in suits running about in a small room deciding huge things. That was exciting, the idea that yes, these are real people. They run about, they wear suits. Then the image of him on the train, slumped, on his own. These are ideas I'll take away with me.

JARDINE:
I think we shouldn't lose the heart of the play. Like Copenhagen, at the heart of this is this dance of death between two men, is the Guillaume/Brandt relationship. That's what Frayn cares about in the sense that he knows that will carry the audience. What carries us through is the fact that this rather unlikeable, camp little man, who is in the end the instrument, we gather, of the unification of Germany, in a sense, in that the spying that he is sending back to Germany is what's bringing the two Germany's together.

LAWSON:
Is he too kind to the characters? Michael Frayn is an old Manchester Guardian Liberal. He is very soft on the spy, isn't he?

PORTILLO:
Yes, I guess he is. The spy serves two masters, which is one of the many ambiguities that goes through the play. He serves two masters, the Chancellor and his spy master, very faithfully and very, very effectively. At the heart of the play is ambiguity. Willy Brandt describes himself as a suitcase with many false bottoms. The characters don't quite know who they are. Whereas Copenhagen was an ambiguity about a meeting, this is an ambiguity about personality and it fits beautifully into politics.


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