“Democracy” is an iconic buzzword of our times. What Webster’s dictionary defines as “government in which the people hold the ruling power either directly or through elected representatives” is routinely held out, particularly by the current leader of the world’s foremost military-industrial complex, to be an absolute and pure political truth. It’s presented as common knowledge whose mere mention suffices to quash dissent and stifle serious debate.

But how many people share a common understanding of this word? This issue is at the heart of “Democracy,” which, through simple but brilliantly effective theater, examines the diverse ways in which people interpret the apparently simple concept.

The latest huge West End and Broadway success for English playwright, novelist and translator Michael Frayn — which premiered at the National Theatre in London in 2003, and opened last weekend in Tokyo — is a docu-drama set in the West Germany of the 1960s and ’70s, during a Cold War era in Europe unfamiliar to many in Japan. Willy Brandt won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1971 for his famous Ostpolitik, attempting to build bridges between East and West at the height of a period of distrust and division between the two Germanys.

Perhaps nervous about this information gap, and to reinforce the play’s appeal here, production company Horipro cast two of Japan’s longtime leading actors — Takeshi Kaga and Masachika Ichimura — as its co-stars. Kaga and Ichimura, however, are just the icing on a dramatic cake that’s provocative and of such universal personal and political interest as to suit the tastes of what will likely be near-full houses throughout this play’s extended Tokyo run and subsequent regional tour.

As “Democracy” opens, tumultuous cheering fills the blacked-out theater before the spotlight falls on Willy Brandt (Kaga) high up center stage taking the oath of office in 1969 as his country’s first elected left-of-center chancellor in nearly 40 years. Down below, Gunter Guillaume (Ichimura), a prominent worker in Brandt’s Social Democratic Party, is regaling his companion Arno Kretschmann (Tomohiko Imai) with the delight he felt at that moment of triumph for left-leaning democracy.

Soon after, Guillaume is appointed as Brandt’s personal assistant, attending on the attractive, intelligent and charismatic leader constantly and privy to all his work. Not bad for a man who was — in historical reality — a spy for the communist East German intelligence agency called the Stasi, and who passed his reports to Kretschmann for delivery across the Wall to East Berlin.

As the play moves on, and Brandt and Guillaume forge a stronger bond that even sees them holidaying abroad together with their families, the events on stage sketch out with fictional flourishes drawn from the build-up to Brandt’s election as chancellor (an office which he held from 1969-1974), striving to overcome internal “democratic” dissent and present a unified face to the world.

To tell his tale — which inexorably leads to the exposure and conviction of Guillaume, and the consequent defeat of a then-discredited Brandt at the polls, Frayn opts not for any dramatic action or movement. Nonetheless, he entirely absorbs the audience’s interest by telling it through conversations between the play’s 10-strong cast on an elegantly simple set by Yukio Horio that, with a minimum of props, locates the party’s meeting room stage-center and at a tilt suggestive of disequilibrium. Meanwhile, small acting spaces to the left and right represent Brandt’s small office and another room used for private conversations — such as when Brandt is informed there is a spy close to the center of power.

Having won the 1998 Evening Standard Award for Best Play with his “Copenhagen” (about the mysterious meeting between the Danish nuclear physicist Neils Bohr and his German counterpart Werner Heisenberg at the height of World War II), Frayn is a past master of this docu-drama style. Here in “Democracy” he uses it to tremendous effect to explore universal human issues. This he does by illuminating the many facets of this eponymous political system and highlighting its flaws and contradictions, fought out between idealists like Brandt and petit-bourgeois like Guillaume, between liberals and conservatives within the same party . . . or, ultimately, between the two halves of a divided Germany, each believing itself to be in democratic opposition to the other.

However, in achieving all this through a naturally flowing story that is devoid of any sense of preaching and is fascinating entertainment to boot, much credit must also go to the English director Paul Miller, who has superbly polished Frayn’s gem here through intense work with his gifted, all-Japanese cast. Foremost among these, of course, are Kaga and Ichimura, though Takashi Fujiki (as SDP power broker Herbert Wehner) and Yoshimasa Kondo (as the chancellor’s head of intelligence services Horst Ehmke) both run them a close second in this memorable production. “Democracy” not only reinforces the dictum that “fact can be stranger than fiction,” but also that which maintains “one man’s meat is another man’s poison” — even though, as we are strongly reminded here, in real life, both very human men may be meat-eaters.

It may concern details of history distant from its Japanese audiences, but “Democracy” is still close to home. In its concern with “What is democracy?” and how to get along with one’s close but very different neighbors, it is a significant production to be staging here now — and one that will give all who see it plenty to chew on long after the last of its many curtain calls.

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