“Democracy” in Sheffield – report by Helen Robertson

Sheffield’s famous Crucible Theatre was the venue for the YTI social event on March 12. Fourteen people – members and partners – attended a preview of Michael Frayn’s 2003 play “Democracy”, with eight gathering for a pleasant dinner at the award-winning Ego mediterranean restaurant beforehand.

The play is a powerful portrayal of events in German politics in the early 1970s under Germany’s first post-WWII socialist government. It focuses on the growing bond between Chancellor Willy Brandt and his (ultimately) personal assistant, Günter Guillaume, and also depicts the complex interactions between other senior socialist politicians including a young Helmut Schmidt.

Brandt resigned after the discovery that Guillaume was an East German spy, although the play makes clear that other political problems as well as rivalries and differences of opinion within the top ranks of the SPD meant that efforts were already being made to persuade or force him to stand down. Guillaume went to prison and was traded for other prisoners by East Germany after six years.

The play surfaces a number of ironies. Guillaume played a critical role in enabling the rapprochement with the East as he told his masters Willy Brandt could be trusted, then caused his downfall. Brandt was disgraced, but his role as the architect of East-West relations was once more celebrated when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. The East is shown as waiting for the West to crumble due to its lack of solidarity, in the end the East crumbled instead and individuality is described as one of the key reasons for this “unexpected” reversal. The contrast is cleverly drawn. Frayn’s play talks of “sixty million Germanies” i.e. a population of 60 million all with different opinions, whereas spymaster Arno reflects on East Germany “We may have our faults, but at least we all speak with the same voice”.

Despite the fact that the action consisted almost exclusively of individuals standing at varying distances from one another talking in confrontational or conspiratorial mode – sometimes making it difficult to follow unless you had a firm grasp of who the characters were – the script was frequently amusing and ironic, allowing the austere delivery of the material to be carried off very effectively.

The playwright is himself a linguist and a translator, which may explain his excellent feel for German idiom even when writing in English. He learned Russian while on National Service and is now considered Britain’s finest translator of Chekhov.

I would not have missed this extremely intelligent feat of writing and production – not to mention the conversation with colleagues old and new – despite the long journey, and I suspect others felt the same. Besides, it is always stimulating to have a change of scene and it was great that local Sheffield YTI members were able to attend easily for a change. The group was a mixture of old members and new, not to mention existing members who had never previously been able to attend a YTI event. I am sure they felt they were welcome, and hope and trust that “Democracy” will be the first of many meetings.

It only remains to say a warm thank you as always to Charlotte and Paul for the inspiration and organisation.