He may be one of the senior practitioners of his art, garlanded with industry awards, honorary degrees (although he turned down a knighthood in 2003) and that ultimate signifier of theatrical success: bums on seats inside, ‘house full’ notices outside. But while Michael Frayn is writing for the theatre, even as his initial concept is impelled by character and plot, doubt persists.
He rarely takes commissions and never feels the need to be commercial or fill a perceived gap in the market. “I don’t work under pressure. I just work when I have ideas, and it’s a matter of beginning to form them into shape. It seems implausible that anyone will ever perform it,” he says. “With Copenhagen, I thought: ‘No one is ever going to do this play. We might get a rehearsed reading of it somewhere.’ But I was taken with the idea.”
The fact that it is about the meeting of two atomic physicists in 1941, with a subtext exploring uncertainty and the random nature of the universe, partly explains his apprehension. He refers to leading screenwriter William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid et al): “He wrote a book in 1983, in which he said that in Hollywood no one knows anything, and it’s the basic principle on which theatre and literature work. Until you test it, no one knows what will catch the public interest.”
Working on Noises Off just a few years before Goldman’s famous assertion, Frayn felt gloomy about the prospects of the backstage farce that uproariously reveals so much about human nature.
“It got so complicated writing it that I thought, ‘I’ll just get it finished, put it on a shelf, forget about it and move on’.” It went on to become his best-known and most performed play, and which, Frayn says, “has provided me with an income ever since”.
Frayn will be 82 in September. Ever since he hit 70, interviewers have persisted in asking him about his plans for retirement. He tends to joke about collapsing into a deckchair at the west London home he shares with his second wife, biographer and critic Claire Tomalin. Yet here he is planning two revivals (as well as Copenhagen, there will be a new production of Wild Honey, his Chekhov adaptation, which won three Oliviers when staged at the National Theatre in 1984) and has just launched a new work, Matchbox Theatre, at Hampstead Theatre.
This comprises more than 20 ‘short entertainments’ culled from more than 30, written as playlets and published last autumn in a book of the same name, an homage to the tiny cardboard-kit theatres Frayn likes to give as first-night presents. Quirky, original, comical and satirical, the works are commentaries on breakdowns in communication (never more so than in an age apparently predicated on round- the-clock connections) and domestic relationships: spouses interrupt each other; lovers fail to deliver their parting words as an airport tannoy system blasts into action; and stone effigies of a couple, recumbent on a tomb for centuries, bicker and reminisce. Then there is the world filtered through the theatre: a director attempts to infuse a real-life street scene with more drama, and reporters deliver Shakespearean plots as breaking news.
He amassed the sketches over many years. “I showed them to my wife and she very sneakily went behind my back to Faber, who then decided to do the book.” Almost immediately, Hampstead’s executive director Greg Ripley-Duggan suggested a production. “Amazing speed and an absolute delight,” says Frayn, whose connection with the theatre stretches back 40 years to Alphabetical Order (also revived there in 2009). Clouds premiered there in the mid-1970s, with Now You Know opening 20 years ago. Frayn was also closely involved in the construction of the theatre’s new building in 2003 and sits on its advisory council.
We meet at the theatre three days before the first preview of Matchbox Theatre. He is unmistakeable, an attenuated figure, professorial and sprightly, with trembling flaps of white hair, dressed in corduroy trousers and a long wool waistcoat. He has a hacking cough and, it transpires, was in hospital only 10 days earlier for an emergency appendectomy that was not without complications. Many octogenarians with such a history might have cancelled their engagements, but Frayn arrives promptly for a two-hour interview that will be followed by his first appearance at rehearsals.
We have been placed at a table in the lower foyer area by the stairs, down which trail most of the cast of six and director Hamish McColl. In his novels and plays, Frayn is the master of the comic misjudgment, the cover-up whopper and the misidentification. So it seems like mischievous plotting when he introduces actor Mark Hadfield as Chris Larner, who is also in the cast and composes the show’s music. Unlike the characters in a farce who compound their dilemmas by lying, Frayn points out Chris when he turns up. “Chris, you’ve already come past! I identified Mark as being you.”
All admit to trepidation at his upcoming presence at the run-through. “There can’t be a less frightening person in the world than me, but the cast will always see it as the inspector general coming in,” says Frayn. “Some authors like to be there for the whole rehearsal period. I see the point of that, but it’s a bit difficult for everyone if the author is there breathing over the director’s shoulder, slightly inhibiting for the director and for the cast – who’s the final authority? It’s really the director.
“In a good production, people respect the text but theatre is an inherently collaborative business. The direction and the actors’ contributions are important. If the author could specify robots doing exactly what he had in mind, it wouldn’t work in the theatre. You’ve got to have actors who find something in those written parts that speaks to them. They have to bring something of themselves, and no one is more important than anyone else.”
Frayn’s relationship with the theatre began with simple childish joy and then veered off the rocks for some years. His father Tommy was an asbestos salesman who, like his siblings, suffered from congential deafness. “He sold building materials to contractors and architects, so there were lots of technical questions. He tried to reduce the amount he had to hear by keeping the conversation initially jokey, and I absorbed some of that.”
He remembers seeing Dick Whittington when small. “Dick was falsely accused of theft, and I burst into tears very noisily in the stalls at the injustice of it. Later at the music hall in Croydon, I laughed so much at a comic conjuror that I almost fell out of the box. I also insisted on standing up and playing an imaginary violin to the music, a big embarrassment to my parents.”
His mother Violet died of a heart attack brought on by a juvenile bout of scarlet fever when Michael was 12. “Although the years after that were grey, as an adolescent life got better. At school I played Mark Antony in Julius Caesar and thought I was marvellous.” He trained as a Russian interpreter whenhe did national service, and at Cambridge was cast in Gogol’s The Government Inspector. He says he had “the smallest part in spite of my enormous talents as an actor. When I went offstage I pulled the door and it wouldn’t open, so I went on pulling until I heard a voice behind the set saying: ‘Push!”. I shot offstage and haven’t been back since.”
Turning to writing, he created a revue for the Footlights that ran for a fortnight at the Cambridge Arts Theatre but failed ignominiously to transfer tothe Scala Theatre in Charlotte Street, London. Frayn’s mistake was to move away from the tradition of intimate revue to a more abstract concept pioneered to huge success in late 1955 by choreographer John Cranko in his show Cranks, when the line-up included Anthony Newley. “I was terrifically taken by it. Cranko could do it but I couldn’t. It didn’t make people laugh.”
I became a journalist and devoted a lot of my columns to mocking the theatre
What was it like sitting in that audience? “Ghastly,” he shudders. “It turned me against the theatre. I was like the fox in the fable [who judges the grapes he can’t reach as being sour]. I behaved very badly. I became a journalist for The Guardian and then the Observer and devoted a lot of my columns to mocking the theatre – how embarrassing it was, how you’re just waiting for the actors to forget their lines or drop their props.”
So it got really deep into his psyche? “Apparently, yes. It came from ignorance and stupid resentment on my part. It was silly.”
His first novel, The Tin Men, was published in 1965, but it was 1970 before Frayn returned to the theatre, his attitude ameliorated by a short stint writing TV plays that were “all recorded on tape and [later] wiped.” He was invited to write a short drama about marriage to run alongside others in a West End venue. “Mine was a simple play about a young couple making a nostalgic visit to their honeymoon hotel in Venice, but now they have a baby and it’s about the difference children make to a marriage.”
He was writing from experience: by then, he had fathered two of his three daughters by his first wife Gillian Palmer. “Then I was told the producer Alexander H Cohen wouldn’t do it as it was too filthy. He had done the original Broadway production of Pinter’s The Homecoming [winning a Tony in 1967]. I was told he’d never do a play in which a baby’s nappy is changed on stage.
“I was so irritated that I wrote three more short plays and had an evening of my own at the Garrick Theatre called The Two of Us with Lynn Redgrave and Richard Briers, a wonderful pair of actors. It got terrible reviews but was a commercial success. In those days there was a gallery claque who would have a drink in a pub in the interval and decide if they liked the play or not. They didn’t like my play, barracked the cast throughout Act II, booed at the end and then barracked me personally in the street outside.”
Frayn was helped by his friendship with playwright Peter Nichols, whose early play A Day in the Death of Joe Egg had been a huge hit in 1967. “I looked over his shoulder at how he coped with first nights, reviews, the drama of the theatre.” Briers gave him a biography of Noel Coward as a first-night present. Discovering that ‘the master’ had had many flops brought with it a revelation. “I realised that, by their nature, failures in the theatre don’t last very long, as they come off, while successes last, so if you manage to hang on there’s a chance that people will remember the successes and forget the failures.
He didn’t have to wait long to taste triumph. Alphabetical Order, a comedy set in a newspaper cuttings library, and Donkeys’ Years, a farce about a student reunion (Globe Theatre) followed in 1975 and 1976, each winning best comedy awards. It was his backstage comedy Noises Off in 1982 that cemented Frayn’s reputation, but the play’s gestation was long and painful. The notion came from watching Redgrave and Briers from the wings in 1970 in a frenzy of costume changes in Chinamen, one of the short pieces that made up The Two of Us. He presented it as a one-act play, Exits, for a charity evening in 1977.
“I rarely take commissions, but Michael Codron, who has produced most of my plays, asked if I could do it as a full-length play. It really needed reorganising, so I took the commission but said I couldn’t do it at that moment. Michael Codron is a wonderful producer, and part of his wonderfulness is his tremendous enthusiasm and impatience to get things on. A week went by and the phone rang and Michael said, ‘Just wondered how you’re getting on?’. I said: ‘I did say I can’t do it now’. ‘Absolutely,’ he said. ‘I won’t ring you again.’ A week later the phone rang. It was Michael…”
It was a complicated play to devise, as the characters – actors in a farce – have to be seen both on and offstage, and the relationship between the two developed. “I wrote it on a heavy old German Adler typewriter, and every time I did a rewrite I would have to type out another slip of paper and glue or clip it to the script. I didn’t know whether actors could learn that amount of silent business, the backstage mime, and didn’t know if they’d be prepared to do a lot of the play facing the back wall. If you’re an actor you want to communicate with the audience.”
Frayn worked with director Michael Blakemore on the text in his usual process. “I read it aloud so he can hear the stress in the line. It’s tedious. We stop on every line and he asks very stupid questions: why does she say that? That’s the great thing about anything new, to be stupid about it. If you know all the answers already, you don’t think. He persuaded me to make many changes, as he said there were things I hadn’t made clear to the audience. I owe a lot of the success of that play to him.”
It is perhaps the play that he has rewritten the most over the decades, with continual revisions through previews at the Lyric Hammersmith. “Halfway through Act III it turned into a serious play and people began to speculate on the events of the evening and what it told us about the nature of life. It became clear at that stage that no one wanted to hear about that, so I then had to rewrite the end of Act I. This went on until Nicky Henson, playing Garry, was deputed by the cast – rather like Garry in the play – to say they weren’t going to learn any more versions before press night.”
There were amendments, though, with every new cast and transfers to the Savoy, Washington DC and New York. When Jeremy Sams directed the NT’s 2000 revival, he agreed that it needed changes. “By then it was difficult to persuade the audience to go out for a second interval, so we put in a front cloth scene between Acts II and III to cover the set change.
It was also revived at the Old Vic in 2011: almost all five-star reviews. Errors had crept in over the years, so I made some changes. In one scene, someone exited into a cupboard and emerged from a completely different room. I think of all the productions with companies trying to use that text and explaining why this happens.”
Commentators are constantly intrigued by Frayn’s predilection for swinging between farce, comedy and serious works such as Benefactors (1984), “set in the context of public housing and about the great shift between social optimism and pessimism that we could do something about our problems.”
Copenhagen, he says, is “a philosophical question about human intention. How do we know why we do what we do? We’re very skilled at self-deception.” The revival will not stray far from Blakemore’s 1998 NT production: “We both feel he got it right.”
Democracy (NT, 2003) was also recently revived by Sheffield Theatres. Frayn says he was far from prescient in setting it in Germany’s coalition-bound politics. “At the end, I say coalitions are unthinkable in Britain except in wartime.”
With Matchbox, a revue-style show – “with a hint of ambiguity: is it a play or a book?” – and planned revivals of the cerebral Copenhagen and Wild Honey (Chekhov’s rambling first play, which Frayn aimed to improve by emphasising the farcical elements), he shows the scope of his interests.
Is he annoyed that analysts are surprised by the breadth of his themes? “I would advise a young author to write the same thing over and over, with slightly different characters until people get used to it. If you do a lot of different things, people don’t know what to expect. But I think you hope to be a bit surprised at the theatre.”
Matchbox Theatre runs at Hampstead Theatre, London, until June 6