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


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.”

In three acts the play goes from an amusing hullabaloo to something painfully funny. The first witnesses the bumbling final rehearsal of a sex farce put through its faltering paces by a director with delusions of grandeur. (“And God said, Hold it. And they held it. And God saw that it was terrible.”) The second is a backstage view of the show in motion, with near-balletic scenes of pandemonium. And the third is the show itself going “sublimely, perfectly wrong”.

Often praised for its technical achievement, the play seems to hold a richer metaphor behind all the palaver. “God” has abandoned his creations, the plan of action is falling apart, and, against the threat of chaos, the show must go on. For all the knickers, nosebleeds and pratfalls, it’s a thoroughly existentialist comedy.

“That’s it,” Frayn says. “But don’t tell anyone about your thesis, which is true, because no one would come to see the play if they thought it was philosophical.”

Frayn doesn’t quite abandon his characters, in either his drama or his novels, but he does like to stand apart from them.

“Obviously something has to come out of oneself when one’s writing,” he says. “But it does feel as if one is writing about other people.

“A lot of writers hate other writers saying this, but it does feel as if the characters take on a life and identity of their own. It doesn’t mean you don’t have to think hard about what they’re doing and to sometimes persuade them to try and do something else. I suppose it is a double vision.”

Arm’s length
Humour, too, is a way of holding the world at arm’s length, something Frayn reflected on in his recent memoir, My Father’s Fortune. An asbestos salesman who was quite deaf, Frayn’s father would prepare elaborate jokes to keep his customers engaged while keeping conversation to a minimum. “When you tell a joke, the only response you want is a laugh,” says Frayn. “Maybe I picked up a bit of that.”

After the sudden death of his mother, when Frayn was 12, he became a troubled student, shunted from class to class. “I discovered that I could get on with people by mocking the teachers and making the class laugh. Probably a lot of comic writers and comic performers have started that way.”

In conversation Frayn is emotionally reserved and reluctant to repeat himself. “You’ve probably read this already,” he will say before answering a question, and twice he hands me a book from his shelf, as if he feels his writing is the best way to elaborate on a response.

He is often funny, sometimes wickedly. “Always my advice to young writers is just to write the same thing over and over again,” he says. “Just change the names and the plot a bit, and the title, but basically produce the same product until people get used to it. Maybe they’ll come to like it.”

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.”

Final work
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