Federal Chancellor of West Germany in the early 1970s, Willy Brandt was clearly a seminal figure blessed with the sort of natural charisma and keen acumen that made him a highly respected figure. A man with an impeccable past who acknowledged the need for political reconciliation in a divided land, Brandt faced many challenges as a leader and it's this that forms the basis of Michael Frayn's engrossing new play, fresh from great acclaim at the National.
At the core of the play is the relationship between Brandt and his factotem, the oleaginous Gunter Guillaume who, whilst devoted to his 'chief' was also spying on him for the authorities in East Germany. Keen to trust the new chancellor they apparently wanted to ensure that his new brand of leadership was genuine, espousing the phrase 'the more you dare, the tighter a grip is needed.'
Guillaume's spymaster, here named Arno Kretschmann, is an ever-present figure seated at the side of the stage, brought into the heart of Brandt's regime as the day to day machinations of office life run- rather disconcertingly- alongside Guillaume's shady tete a tetes. Peter Davison's sleek office set has a spiral staircase at its centre perhaps reflecting the slippery nature of politics as one tentative step or rash judgement is seen to result in potential ignominy or disaster.
There's a whole clutch of first-rate performances here but the greatest emphasis naturally falls upon Roger Allam's Brandt and Conleth Hill as Guillaume. Both are superb. Allam is highly persuasive as a man of integrity who could command loyalty and affection by the simplest of gestures and Hill is equally impressive as the jovial, resourceful assistant who spent over four years as an informant.
Brandt believed that man had many potential destinies and could easily become an entirely different individual according to his choice of path, an interesting idea given Guillaume's duplicity. Such behaviour's easy to condemn, yet for all his double-dealing he seems to have been genuinely attached to Brandt and the cut-throat nature of politics is all too transparent in Frayn's portrait of a party jostling with competitive egos. As the play ends the sounds of the Berlin Wall crumbling come to the fore and it's clear that whatever the ambiguity surrounding Brandt, he was largely responsible for ushering in a better and brighter era.