“…the sight of people running insanely from door to door backstage, doing quick changes as they went …seemed to me funnier than what was going on round the front.”
Michael Frayn, one of the world’s top writers – still alive today – and father of Noises Off, the inspiration behind Sardines’ christening. Perhaps this intellectual author, whose body of work is so vast and varied in all aspects of the written word, may find my well-heeled questions about his seminal play, downright tedious.
However, I needn’t have been so concerned. Taking time out from attending rehearsals of the revival of another of his famous plays, Donkeys’ Years, I found Michael to be a very affable English gent and happy to disclose exactly where the inspiration for his most famous farce came from. Michael Frayn is a fascinating man so, not wishing, like several of his other interviewers, to overly editorialise or punctuate the interview with opinions, I let Michael do the talking which I’m sure, dear reader, you will appreciate.
“The first show I ever wrote was called The Two of Us, which consisted of four short plays – produced originally at the Garrick Theatre with Richard Briars and Lynn Redgrave. The point was that these four plays were performed by just two actors, and the last of the series, was Chinaman, a farce with five characters which the two performers had to play between them. I watched it backstage one night and the sight of people running insanely from door to door backstage, doing quick changes as they went, while the stage manager put an arm on the first door to make it look as if the character as still there, seemed to me funnier than what was going on round the front. So I thought I would write a farce seen from behind. It was a simple ambition to have but turned out to be horribly difficult to do. I made many, many attempts with short plays and full-length plays, but I finally wrote a short version which was about a company performing a pastiche French farce, the whole thing lasted about fifteen to twenty minutes.
“That was produced for a charity evening, and it worked fairly well, but it was all over in one act. You had to take in everything simultaneously. You had to get to know the company and realise they were playing away upstage of you and then take in the backstage antics downstage. It was all too much and I thought what it really needed was a separation into different sections, so first of all you should see the play the company is rehearsing, so that you get to know the play and also because it’s a rehearsal and sometimes the rehearsal gets stopped because things have gone wrong, you would get to know the company. Now in the second stage you will see it from behind and now you already know the play they’re doing upstage, you don’t have to see it so closely. Then the third stage is to see the effect the backstage events are having on the onstage events with everything going wrong.
“Michael Codron read the first short version of the play and asked me if I would like to do a full-length version. When I thought out this scheme I told him ‘alright’, I would take a commission – I think it’s the only time I’ve ever taken a commission for one of my original plays – I said, ‘you realise I’ve got a lot of other things to do first so it’s going to take me a long time before I can deliver this?’ He replied: ‘I entirely understand, I’ll be absolutely patient. I will just wait until you tell me there’s something for me to see.’ A week later he rang and asked, ‘how are you getting on?’ I said, ‘I’m sorry but I won’t be starting for another six months,’ and, again, he said, ‘I absolutely understand.’ A week went by, the phone rang again, Michael impatiently saying, ‘where is it?’ That’s the wonderful thing about Michael Codron, he’s a real enthusiast. I worked with him very closely on the text, he persuaded me to do a lot of rewriting on it and he had a lot of ideas himself. It wouldn’t have worked if we hadn’t done that together; he made a huge contribution towards it.
“Implausibly it worked out but I have to say before it was performed for the first time no one knew whether it would. Michael Codron said before we started rehearsing, ‘I will do my very best with this, but whether it’s going to work or not, I haven’t the slightest idea.’ I’ve gone on rewriting and rewriting and rewriting it. When we first produced it at the Lyric Hammersmith, the first two and half acts were totally farce, but then it became very solemn and started to reflect on the nature of life. However, as soon as we saw it in front of an audience it became plain that they did not wish to know about man’s destiny or the state of the world at that point in the evening and there was nothing to do but cut it and rewrite the ending.
“While it was on at the Lyric I went on rewriting the ending until finally Nicky Henson, who was in the cast, was deputed by the company to come and say that the cast refused to learn anymore variants of the play. He played Garry Lejeunne and was absolutely like the Garry character in the show, who protests on behalf of the company. Then, every time we changed the cast or did another production in America, I rewrote the ending. When the play was revived at the National Theatre in 2000 the director, Jeremy Sams, and I worked on it again. I did a lot more rewriting throughout and I, once again, rewrote the ending. If you see a play a million times your fingers itch to get things a bit better.
“Theatre, of course, has also changed. When I wrote the play it was in three acts, when it was perfectly common for a play to have two intervals, but by the time we revived it no audience wanted to leave the auditorium for a second interval, so we had to find some way of putting two of the acts together. I’ve also done the same for Donkey’s Years, which started life as a three-act play and is now a two-act play. It’s sensible, especially with a play like Donkey’s years. If you send the audience out after act one, or what’s now, act one – scene one, they really haven’t got enough to keep them interested. You’ve got to give them a reasonable amount before they go out for the interval.
“However, I think after you’ve done your best with a play – when it’s first produced or when it’s revived – you can’t then control subsequent productions; it’s just not physically possible. Professional companies have done productions of Noises Off over and over again all over the world, and there’s no conceivable way in which I could begin to supervise all those productions, so you really just have to let people get on with it. I think writing plays is a bit like bringing up children. You fuss and fuss and worry about their education but at some point they go off into the world and become independent of you, and that’s that. You can maintain, I hope, a loving relationship but you can’t control what they do any more.”
Sensing that Michael was becoming a little tired of talking about only one aspect of his career, I enquired which genre of writing he favoured most? “I think if you’re writing you have to wait until ideas come into your head, and the ideas will dictate the form. The ideas are for a story told in a particular way and you just have to follow that through. I have occasionally been in two minds about what form something should take. I wrote something called Now You Know which began life as a play. I wrote draft after draft of it and I could not make it work. Finally I thought: ‘Well, the problem is …the story is really about knowing what other people are thinking.’ We needed to know what was going on in the minds of all the people involved. You can’t do that in a play, not directly. People can say ‘I’m thinking this’ and ‘I’m thinking that,’ but that’s an indirect way of coming at it. In a novel it’s very natural, so I then wrote it as a novel and saw it through the eyes of each of the characters in turn. The novel was published, and then I thought: ‘well, now I’ve done that, now I know what all the characters are thinking, I can go back to the original situation’ …which is the one we’re all in, in life, of the characters trying to work out what each other is thinking, from what they say, the expressions on their faces and their behaviour and so on. So I then wrote it as a play and it was – I have to say – only very moderately successful. That’s one of the few times I’ve really been in two minds about how to tell the story.
“I do find writing things difficult, if I could find something easy to do in life I would switch to it immediately. It’s very hard work, writing, and it takes me a long time. There are some writers who amously write plays in three days, Noel Coward was one, alleged to have written Hay Fever in three days. Alan Ayckbourn is another. I can’t imagine how they do it …it takes me a very, very long time. If you want to be successful as a writer the thing to do is to write the same thing over and over again in very slightly different forms until people get used to it. You only need to change the story slightly, change the characters slightly, but just keep doing the same thing because, after all, people like to know what they’re going to get. If you go to a supermarket and buy a packet of cornflakes, when you get home you hope it’s going to contain cornflakes and not boot polish or rat poison.
“It’s the same thing with a play, if you can establish your trademark or your brand, people know what they’re going to get under that name. It’s not a good idea to do what I seem to have done in life, which is to write all sorts of things.” I, for one, am very glad Michael chose to ‘write all sorts of things’ …although the theatrical side to his work is the one Sardines is obviously most interested in! I’ll end this article with how the interview ended. Just a tantalising little taste of what is soon to come from the pen of a great English playwright.
Q – What projects are you working on at the moment?
A – I’ve got a new play which is just finished.
Q – Can you tell me what it’s about?
A – (Laughs) I’m going to have to wait for the producers to announce all that I’m afraid.