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
But he can be self-effacing to the point of inscrutability. When I ask about his affinity with Chekhov he says, “One of the things I particularly like about Chekhov is that there’s no trace of Chekhov anywhere in Chekhov. People keep looking for self-portraits, but as soon as think you’ve found one, it plainly falls to pieces.” Frayn, too, is a master of getting out of the way.
For similar reasons, his defining work may be Copenhagen, from 1998, an imagined version of a real meeting, in 1941, between the German physicist Werner Heisenberg and his Danish colleague and friend Niels Bohr, who were then on opposite sides of the second World War. A dramatic equivalent to Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, Frayn’s play is a cerebral and thrillingly moral drama.
“In a good play everyone is right,” said the German playwright Friedrich Hebbel, and the words have become Frayn’s professional credo. It is also why Copenhagen became so controversial. Frayn drew immense criticism for refusing to judge Heisenberg as a Nazi collaborator. When it was adapted by Cologne Opera, Frayn was astonished to see Heisenberg played as a cringing villain with a swastika concealed under his lapel.
“Apart from being completely historically false,” he says, “it shoots down the plot. Why did Heisenberg want to see Bohr? Because he wanted to have a chat, to air something in front of a sympathetic listener. That seems to me the simplest and likeliest explanation. There’s no way of knowing for sure.”
Frayn is completing the screenplay for Skios, an adaptation of his recent novel, which itself owes much to the techniques of Frayn’s theatre. It was partly an experiment to see if the mechanisms of a stage farce – the lies and panic – could work in a novel. Although various revivals of his plays are in the pipeline, Frayn believes this screenplay will be his final work.
“I don’t have any ideas in mind, and I think at last I shall put my feet up,” he says. “I’m 79. If you can’t retire at 79 when can you retire? If an idea comes, okay, I’ll give it a spin. But if no idea comes, what can one do? I’d prefer to write. But I might join the local bowls club.” He pauses and looks suddenly concerned. “That’s not serious,” he says.
Noises Off is at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, Dublin, from July 8th to 13th