A Frayn Balance
British Playwright and Novelist Michael Frayn Speaks His Mind On Comic Equilibrium, Human Survival, and Death By Laughter
To say that Michael Frayn is on a roll would be a gross understatement.
The multitalented Englishman is that rarest of hybrids, a first-rate novelist and a major playwright. In the past few years, he has snared a Booker Prize nomination, a Whitbread Award, and a Commonwealth Writers Prize for his novels Headlong (1999) and Spies (2002). His 1998 play Copenhagen won every important English theatre award plus the Tony, and is now enjoying productions on regional stages across North America. A revival of his 1977 comedy Clouds is touring Britain, while the Vancouver Playhouse presents an unprecedented two Frayns among its five shows this season. Brent Carver stars in Copenhagen in February. The killer farce Noises Off (1982), previously staged at the Playhouse in 1986, opens tonight (November 25) and runs until December 18, directed by Dean Paul Gibson.
Frayn spoke to the me by phone from New York, where his latest mega-hit, Democracy, opened this month on Broadway after having won both the London Critics' Circle Award and the Evening Standard Theatre Award for best play of 2003. He had arrived just a day after that peculiar exercise in democracy called the American presidential election. With characteristic British good manners, Frayn refused comment on the George Bush victory, except to register the strong reactions of the locals: "Somebody was quoted in the New York Times saying now New York was like an island off the coast of Europe."
He also shrugged off a question about whether Americans respond differently than Britons do to the brainy internationalism of his history plays. Democracy explores the Cold War relationship between former West German Chancellor Willy Brandt and a trusted aide who turned out to be an East German spy. Copenhagen dramatizes a wartime discussion about quantum physics that may have prevented the Nazis from developing the atom bomb. Brandt, Niels Bohr, and Werner Heisenberg don't score very high on the North American celebrity-recognition meter. "Your question implies that people in Britain have some great interest in the history and politics of other countries," he laughed. "It's a lovely assumption, but it's not the case. I don't think it's any different than in New York."
Apparently, cultural differences haven't affected the reception of Noises Off since its premiere in 1982. People everywhere tend to find this farce within a farce hilarious. The play tracks a provincial English theatre company rehearsing and performing a sex farce called Nothing On. Off-stage tensions among cast, director, and crew farcically counterpoint the barely controlled chaos on-stage as we view the action in front of the set and from behind. The tenuous order of art and life rapidly disintegrates in a complex, blindingly funny choreography that regularly has critics reaching for superlatives.
For Frayn, though, writing the play was no laughing matter. Its genesis was his own first show, a farce performed by two actors playing five different characters. "One night I watched it backstage as people madly rushed from one door to another changing their clothes, and I thought 'This is funnier than what's going on in the front. One day I shall write a farce seen from behind.' But it turned out to be hideously difficult. When I finally succeeded in writing Noises Off, I thought I'd lost all contact with reality. It was just so difficult to keep it all in my head and to explain what was supposed to be going on."
Frayn's mind-bending challenge to maintain the baroque comic equilibrium of Noises Off shares common ground with the delicate balances faced by the characters in his more serious work. They struggle to hold in place the immensely complicated physics of the atomic puzzle, connect scraps of history, politics, and theology to make sense of a Pieter Brueghel painting (Headlong), or try desperately to shore up the crumbling world of prerevolutionary Russia (in Frayn's acclaimed Anton Chekhov translations). His writing consistently explores our ongoing attempts to impose structure and meaning on a generally uncooperative universe.
"I think most of my plays are about the way we see the world, the connections in the world. The most fundamental thing we do in life is to make sense of the world around us. If we can't see what's true and what's not true, we die. And we can't survive without each other. We have to find ways of cooperating with other people, which is what Democracy is about. It's about the sheer necessity of our communal decision-making."
Putting the cooperative ideal into artistic practice, Frayn develops his new plays in collaboration with his long-time director, Michael Blakemore. "I always show my latest play to Claire [wife Claire Tomalin, the award-winning biographer] and Michael. And if Michael wants to do it, we sit down together and go through it line by line. He makes me read the play aloud to him, and we stop at every point while he asks a simple question like, 'Why is this here and not there?' "
When I say I'd like to be a fly on the wall during one of those sessions, he laughs again. "You'd be bored out of your mind! It's such a tedious process."
I doubt that anything this man does could be tedious. But it might be dangerous. When Noises Off first opened in New York, critics Clive Barnes and Joel Siegel found the show so funny that they wondered--tongues only half in cheeks--whether people might literally split their sides or laugh themselves to death. Has Frayn ever heard of that happening to anyone at a production of the play?
"No, thank goodness, but I'd better take out insurance quickly. When does the play open in Vancouver? Seriously, I've never heard of anyone actually laughing themselves to death. Everyone now believes that laughter is good for you. Funny, it's like bananas. For years, I ate bananas assuming they were delicious junk food. But I recently saw a sign on a banana plant at Kew Gardens saying they were very good for you, full of vitamins or whatever you're supposed to have. I was stunned. I assumed that it was just something that was nice, but it turns out to be really good. And it's the same with laughter."
Noises Off runs at the Vancouver Playhouse from tonight (November 25) until December 18. For tickets, call 604-873-3311.