Theatre Goer Magazine – April 2004
Roger Allam has never been to Germany and doesn’t speak a word of
German. But, as the dynamic, flawed Willy Brandt in Michael Frayn’s
multi-award-winning Democracy, he shows yet again that he’s one
of British theatre’s classiest acts.
IT’S NOT EASY TO MAKE A SEXY EVENING of theatre out of ten men in suits, but that’s just one of the many accomplishments of Michael Frayn’s latest play, Democracy, which has arrived at Wyndham’s Theatre in the West End after two successive sell-out National Theatre runs. The complex play’s trajectory comes as a surprise to its leading man, Roger Allam, who – as he recalls, laughing – thought: ‘I don’t know; I don’t get this, really,’ when he first read the script.
But Allam’s success as the one-time German Chancellor Willy Brandt in Michael Blakemore’s production should come to theatre lovers as no surprise at all. Recently turned 50, Allam has quietly but consistently carved out a niche for himself across two Olivier Awards, 11 years at the RSC, and a sequence of superb work for the National as exactly the sort of stalwart performer on whom the British theatre thrives. After all, if it’s one of the points of Frayn’s play that we all carry within us various warring democracies over which we rule at our peril, how lucky we are over time to have witnessed the various guises of Roger Allam. We’ve seen him in musicals, Shakespeare and Chekhov, to cite just a thin wedge of his work in the classics, as well as going on to new plays, at the head of which is surely this provocative slab of semi-fictionalised history from Frayn.
‘I’m amazed at the way Democracy has sort of caught the public imagination,’ says Allam, reflecting upon the play’s onward journey into the West End. Initially, Allam admits responding to the script ‘in that typical selfish actor’s way – that Willy had an awful lot of listening to do and did a lot of standing around while the others got to speak’. Allam says he was ‘on the verge of turning the play down’ when he took advantage of a long weekend to read the script aloud with his partner, the actress Rebecca Saire. (The couple have a four-year-old son, William.) And, as the two performers animated the text, Frayn’s subtle handling of the shifting sands of devotion and betrayal began to come firmly into view, alongside an awareness in Allam that he was clearly destined in his career for, he chuckles, ‘a German phase’ – even though the actor, born in Bromley-by-Bow in the East End, speaks not one word of German and has never been to Germany.
It was during Trevor Nunn’s regime at the National, after all, that Allam scored several of his greatest triumphs. Those begin with his performance as Hitler in David Edgar’s Albert Speer, adapted from Gitta Sereny’s biography of the architect, in which he re-imagined for keeps one of the most chronicled people of the 20th century. ‘That was an easier task, in a way,’ says Allam, comparing the challenges of acting Hitler with his current gig as Brandt, that ideological architect of Ostpolitik, the policy for healing the breach between East and West which won him the 1971 Nobel peace prize. ‘It sounds trivial to say it,’ says Allam, who in conversation emerges as anything but, ‘and yet, there was just a lot more showbiz [playing] Hitler. And, because the play was called after Speer, not Hitler, I was always playing Speer’s version, his experience of Hitler. That probably made my task a bit easier.’
Allam thinks back to various crucial moments in the similar extraordinary rise and fall of the politician whom he is now playing eight times a week. ‘I remember Willy becoming Chancellor in 1969, and I remember my parents thinking he was a good thing. I remember him kneeling at the memorial to the Jews of the Warsaw ghetto, of course, and I remember him resigning and looking disappointed or sad.’
Are Allam and Brandt a natural physical fit? ‘Willy was burlier than I am, stockier, until he was very old and got much thinner’ says Allam, who at six feet tall is no physical slouch himself. ‘His brow seemed to be furrowed with thought, and when he smiled, his face was a glory of wrinkles, so my job in the play was about finding a kind of expression, really, and a tone of voice, rather than an accent.’
It helps, of course, that Frayn’s play never pretends to be a documentary. Instead, Democracy tells of the deep yet deceptive rapport between Brandt and his East German personal assistant, Günter Guillaume, who doubled as a Stasi spy: an aide-de-camp who clearly adored the very same boss whose secrets he was passing to the other side. (The Irish actor Conleth Hill, from the original cast of Stones in his Pockets, makes a funny and heartfelt Guillaume.)
Frayn’s play, says Allam, ‘gets you as a love story, but we’re also lucky that the story of political machinations has been in the papers all this past year while we’ve been doing the play; it’s never ever gone away.’ Here in the UK, the actor points out, ‘we have a left-of-centre government grappling with the realities of office: there are lots of connections there that have helped us, I think, and made people respond to the play in a way that perhaps in another era they wouldn’t have.’ At the same time, Brandt’s sexual energy, at least as addressed by Frayn, has echoes across the Atlantic of the misdeeds of Bill Clinton. Do such escapades tally with Allam’s own life? ‘I’ve never had that level of adulation.’ He gives a low, strong laugh. ‘Though there were one or two odd occurrences, of course…’
An odd occurrence, aesthetically speaking, was surely Allam’s last West End foray, late in 2002. In American writer Michael Weller’s dim two-hander, What the Night Is For, Allam played the former and possibly future lover of none other than former X Files star Gillian Anderson, who was making her London stage debut. The play required Allam to shed his clothes, but far more revealing were the poor reviews. Allam, quite properly, is unrepentant about the experience. ‘It was nice to do something that had no other agenda and that was what it was, really. What the Night Is For was very, very different from a Michael Frayn play. There weren’t a lot of strange interconnecting levels on which the play was working; it worked as the story that it was.’
It helped that audiences came in sufficient numbers to keep the play at the Comedy Theatre for more than three months, during which time Allam was delighted to find himself ‘adopted’ by a particular cadre of Anderson fans: ‘There was a small group of Spaniards, 20 Spanish girls, going, “Raw-heer, Raw-heer”‘ – he affectionately imitates the broad Spanish pronunciation of ‘Roger’ – ‘and I thought they were charming – lovely, actually.’ And so he wasn’t overly surprised last autumn to find the same claque in attendance at a performance of Democracy. ‘They’d managed to get tickets’ says Allam, sounding vaguely bemused by all the attention. “They’re very tenacious.’
The glare of the West End, in truth, is relatively new to Allam, notwithstanding his stint in the mid-Eighties as Javert in the original Palace Theatre (and, before that, at the Barbican) company of Les Misérables and a subsequent, if short-lived, stand as the Bogart-like private eye in the award-winning financial flop, City oj Angels, the Cy Coleman musical that transferred to rave reviews to the Prince of Wales from Broadway. ‘In a way, if one can talk about oneself like this, I think I’m seen as versatile’ says Allam of his breadth of work, which includes an Olivier Award-winning turn at the Donmar Warehouse in Peter Nichols’ play-with-music Privates on Parade as the camp cross-dressing Terri Dennis. (‘Ooh, that Bernadette Shaw – what a chatterbox!’) When the director Michael Grandage first mentioned Privates on Parade, Allam thought he would be up for the show’s other, considerably more strait-laced leading military role, originated by Nigel Hawthorne. ‘But Terri, because it seemed more unlikely to me, was instantly more appealing; that’s always been part of the appeal of acting for me.’
What of the allure of acting in Allam’s own life? A vicar’s son, he refers to the theatre as ‘a lifeline to me, really: a kind of education’. As a boarder at Christ’s Hospital school in Sussex, he played Guildenstern in Hamlet and went on his own to the theatre for the first time in the early 1970s to see Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead at the Olivier-era Old Vic. ‘The fact that I was studying Hamlet meant that I understood the play easily, so I felt ushered into a kind of strange mixture of a private world for me but also a public world shared with this large crowd of strangers that was the audience.’ For 15 pence, he got to sit on ‘little padded benches in the gallery,’ and that was the price of his Tube fare, too.
It costs considerably more, of course, these days for Allam to commute up to town daily from Mortlake in south-west London, where he and Saire moved last year (‘It’s nice to be near the park or the river’) after Allam’s quarter-century in and around Stoke Newington, in the north-east of the capital. (Allam says that ‘better schools, alas, than in Hackney’ played a part in the family’s decision to go west.)
Hollywood and the LA scene, he says, were never an option: ‘I wouldn’t have known what to do.’ Nonetheless, and having reached the half-century mark where, Allam quips, ‘a noise accompanies almost every physical activity’, he would now like to do more film. ‘I’ve done a bit; I’ve not done much I’m pleased with overall, but I’ve done some stuff I’m not ashamed of’ starting with his recent turn as a playwright modelled on Tennessee Williams in a TV remake of The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone, starring Helen Mirren and Anne Bancroft. But age, he smiles, has brought with it a greater calm about the vagaries of life as an actor. ‘I’ve reached a stage – I hope it lasts – where I try not to worry as much as I might have done when I was younger; I’ve got to what Tony Sher calls the “oh-fuck-it stage”, where you kind of think, oh well, I’ll just see.’
In any case, there are still more Germans left for Allam to play. After all, he notes, deadpan, there’s always Adenauer, the Musical. The actor pauses, as if to retract the suggestion. ‘Don’t! Don’t!’ Allam shrieks in mock-alarm. ‘Someone will do it.’
Matt Wolf is the London theatre critic for Variety and the International Herald Tribune.