How Michael Frayn gets it sublimely, perfectly wrong
The playwright and novelist, author of Noises Off and Copenhagen, prefers to disappear from his work, finding rich comedy in chaos and deep uncertainty in history
Photograph: Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert/Getty Images
Existentialist: the Old Vic production of Noises Off. Photograph: Johan Persson
In his home in southwest London, which is filled with sunlight and books, Michael Frayn lives a serene life surrounded by chaos. That, at least, is the impression you get when you arrive at his elegant coach house on the narrow bend of a busy road where commuters hurtle by. It is remarkable, Frayn says jokingly, that the handyman painting his outside wall has survived this long. Even in such an idyll, disasters are waiting to happen.
That is true of much of Frayn’s work as a playwright and novelist, which could be roughly divided into comedies of disorder and dramas of moral uncertainty. As a translator he has delivered what many consider the most authoritative English-language versions of Chekhov, plays that fold arch humour into pictures of sad decline.
Frayn’s own comedies, with their dazzling understanding of both the mechanics and the psychology of farce, could stem from his childhood amusement at finely crafted calamity – “I laughed so much at a comic conjuror whose tricks all went sublimely, perfectly wrong,” he wrote, “that I almost fell out of the box into the orchestra pit.”
And his celebrated later works for the stage, which have imagined the internal lives of historical characters, seem to apply Frayn’s philosophical mind to understanding people and the world. He originally studied moral sciences at Cambridge, and every work, however serious or frivolous, seems like the product of deep consideration.
“That’s what it’s all about,” the beleaguered director of the farce within a farce in Frayn’s 1982 play, Noises Off, says. “Doors and sardines. Getting on – getting off. Getting the sardines on – getting the sardines off. That’s farce. That’s the theatre. That’s life.”
Revived last year in a spirited production by the Old Vic, in London, and now coming to Dublin during an extensive tour of Britain and Ireland, the play has proven Frayn’s most popular. It was also one of his hardest to write, for both its technical demands, which require an almost mathematical precision, and for how much this comedy of panic and embarrassment reveals.
“You reject absolutely the idea that it could be you up there, so idiotically embarrassed, so transparently mendacious,” Frayn said about farces. “This is what gives farce its hysterical edge . . . In laughing at it you have lost your moral dignity, and you don’t like to admit it afterwards.”
Is it coincidental that one of Frayn’s earliest onstage experiences, in an army production of The Government Inspector in the mid 1950s, involved the humiliation of a jammed door and a slow hand clap as he tried to make his exit? Or that the revue he wrote for Cambridge Footlights, the university’s student comedy troupe, was one of the first not to transfer to London?
Frayn subsequently turned his back on theatre, returning to it at the age of 36, when he wrote his first play. What are Frayn’s feelings towards Noises Off now?
“Gratitude,” he says, sitting neatly in the corner of his office. “It’s kept me going for many years. But I’ve seen so many productions of it in different countries, in different forms, with different approaches, I don’t know what I think about it now. The thing about plays is that they’re endlessly renewed. Sometimes you’re disappointed in what happens, but over and over again you’re surprised in a good way. You’re delighted people have seen something in it you haven’t quite seen yourself.”