Saturday, 15 December 2018

Writing this play was like sculpting jelly

PLAYWRIGHT Michael Frayn has long had a weakness for farce — he cites a visit to the National Theatre’s legendary

PLAYWRIGHT Michael Frayn has long had a weakness for farce — he cites a visit to the National Theatre’s legendary Sixties’ production of Feydeau’s A Flea In Her Ear as a particularly pleasurable night of rolling in the aisles. Since then he has written 16 plays, and Noises Off — probably his most famous — which opens at the Wycombe Swan on July 16, was inspired by a visit backstage during a performance of another of his plays The Two Of Us, at his debut in London’s West End.

He said: “The show, a series of two-handers, starred Richard Briers and Lynn Redgrave and in the closing piece, a farce, they played five characters between them. Therefore there had to be a series of quick changes. When I saw what that entailed, I thought that it was funnier than anything that was happening on stage and I decided that I’d like to write a farce, viewed from behind the scenes.”

That first seed of Noises Off eventually grew into Exits, a one-act play presented at a fund-raising midnight matinée in 1977 and then Frayn was commissioned by Michael Codron, the doyen of West End producers, to write a full-length version.

This was no easy task. Attempting to plan the movement of actors and crucial props in and out of a variety of exits and entrances, firstly in rehearsal as viewed from out front and then in performance as seen from backstage, would have taxed the organisational powers of the architects of the D-Day Landings or of the 2012 London Olympics. And in the days before the widespread use of computers, Frayn had to rely on his trusty Adler typewriter to steer him along the complicated courses taken by actors and props, on and off the stage.

“Writing Noises Off was difficult,” says Frayn. “It was like trying to make a sculpture out of jelly. Every time you change something in one of the acts it bulges out in the other two. I didn’t know whether actors would agree to perform a large part of the play not to the audience but to the back wall of the theatre — or even if they could learn to perform all the backstage action of Act Two in mime. I often cursed the day I ever decided to write it. Michael Blakemore, the director of the first production, promised to give the play his best shot, but said he had really no idea whether it would work or not. And as we left the rehearsal room at the end of each day I could see his reassuring smile draining away to bleak anxiety.”

Despite Frayn’s forebodings, the play was well received at its first preview at the Lyric Theatre in Hammersmith. It was immediately apparent, though, that some major repair work had to be carried out on the last act.

“As written, it turned suddenly serious halfway through Act Three. But it was obvious that the audience wouldn’t tolerate existential angst at that point in the evening. I went on rewriting each day until Nicky Henson, who was playing Garry, was deputed by the rest of the company (rather like Garry in the play) to announce that they would learn no more new versions.

“Each time we rehearsed a new cast during the run at the Savoy, though, I did some more work on it. And again when it opened in Washington and when it transferred to Broadway.”

Frayn pays tribute to the contributions to the development of the piece made by the three directors of its major UK productions: Michael Blakemore, Jeremy Sams and now Lindsay Posner. It seems as if we have now arrived at the definitive version. To judge by the international reach which it has attained down the years, Frayn’s account of actors struggling to achieve a theatrical performance has struck a universal chord. But why?

“I think that it’s connected to the fear which we all have inside ourselves that we might be unable to go on with the performance,” he says. “It’s amazing how many people find public speaking terrifying, even if it’s just in front of family and friends at a wedding. And an audience is an intense version of the world around us in general. We all feel that we might break down — and we sometimes do. So when we see it happening to those idiots up there on the stage in a farce it’s a release of the tension.”

There were reports however that some members of the theatrical profession were less than amused by Noises Off’s depiction of actors as dimwitted, emotionally immature and inclined to alcoholic excess. Frayn pleads guilty but with extenuating circumstances.

“It’s a very unfair picture of actors,” he admits. “In my experience, actors are astonishing people — intelligent, resourceful, mutually supportive, and often with wide-ranging interests in things well outside the limits of the theatre. The more I work with them the more I admire them. On the other hand, Noises Off is a farce and the characterisation in a farce has to be a bit two-dimensional. Anyway it’s not completely unknown for actors to have affairs and rows with one another.”

In fact, Frayn’s conscience has been equally pricked by the dangers to which actors in Noises Off are subjected. He recalls one unfortunate Garry, during a performance in Oxford, gashing himself during his tumble down the stairs in Act Three so badly that the actress playing Dotty had to move downstage to conceal the gathering pool of blood from the audience.

Frayn’s dramatic output is extremely varied both in tone and in subject-matter, from the farcical romp of Donkeys’ Years to the world of power politics as seen in Democracy. And the high-spirited gaiety of Noises Off seems far distant from the sober preoccupations of Copenhagen. Yet there is a thematic affinity between these plays and much of Frayn’s work for the stage can be seen as part of his continuing fascination with the way we perceive the world and how we try to make sense of it by giving it a shape and a structure.

As Frayn says in the Introduction to Volume One of his Collected Plays: “The actors in Noises Off have fixed the world by learning roles and rehearsing their responses. The fear that haunts them is that the unlearned and unrehearsed — the great dark chaos behind the set, inside the heart and brain — will seep back on to the stage. The prepared words will vanish. The planned responses will be inappropriate. Their performance will break down, and they will be left in front of us, naked and ashamed.”

lNoises Off starring Neil Pearson (of Drop The Dead Donkey fame) and Maureen Beattie runs at the Wycombe Swan from Tuesday, July 16 to Saturday, July 20. Box office: 01494 512000 or visit

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