Michael Frayn’s NOISES OFF and Farce in Ireland

A couple of weeks ago at the Synge Summer School, Enda Walsh was talking about his reasons for writing The Walworth Farce. He was living in London, he said, but was always thinking and writing about Ireland – and he decided to write a play about that experience of living in one place but imaginatively occupying another. One of the things he wanted to do is to bring an Irish approach to a style of theatre that he sees as being particularly English: farce. He explained that he read several farces from many different countries, from Moliere to the present, quickly realising how difficult they are to write. And he wondered why it is that we in Ireland “don’t do farce”.

It’s an interesting question. There have been some Irish farces before: Yeats and Gregory’s Pot of Broth springs to mind, as does O’Casey’s Purple Dust. And there are elements of farce in Waiting for Godot too. But the door-slamming, innuendo-filled farce that Walsh was talking about isn’t often done here.

We do occasionally import such plays from abroad: Alan Ayckbourn’s Bedroom Farce was staged at the Gate earlier this year, but it received fairly negative word of mouth (from people I know, anyway) and at least one negative review. So I’ve sometimes thought that farce is rather like the Carry On films: it’s something that we know about and appreciate to an extent, but don’t wholly embrace in the way that our nearest neighbours do. That is a massive generalisation, of course, but perhaps it’s not completely inaccurate.

I found myself thinking again about all of these questions last night, when we went to see a terrific Old Vic production of Noises Off at the Grand Canal theatre.

Long-standing Irish theatre-goers should know what to expect. The play has been staged in Ireland before, and Frayn’s Copenhagen was very popular when Rough Magic produced it back in 2002. And I know of quite a few people who read and enjoyed Frayn’s farcical novel Skios, which was long-listed for the Booker last year (I thought it would have made a better play, to be honest). But even for people who know what to expect, it’s great to have an opportunity to see such a well acted, well directed and well designed production.

The most important thing to say is that this production of Noises Off is very funny. Some of the humour is undoubtedly in Carry On territory: there are sexual puns that would make a healthy 12-year-old boy flinch with embarrassment, and one of the cast spends quite a lot of her time on stage in her underwear. But mostly it’s a great example of classical farce: the more the characters’ discomfort grows, the more our enjoyment of their predicament increases.

I left the theatre with a renewed appreciation of Frayn’s skills as a playwright. We expect a farce to be intricately plotted, and this one is. And I enjoyed the send-up of theatre, actors and theatricality generally, which is both affectionate and completely ruthless. But the pacing of the play is almost perfect: Frayn knows exactly how long the audience will be prepared to tolerate a joke, and is also very impressive in his ability to set up expectations that will later be defied or rewarded in unexpected ways. If Godot is a play in which nothing happens twice, Noises Off is in some ways a play in which nothing happens three times (as we watch one act of a play being performed three times, with diminishing returns each time). I kept expecting myself to grow tired of the repetitions, but it never happened.

So it’s well worth seeing. I hope the good weather doesn’t have too severe an impact on attendance: I’d love to see more of this kind of theatre being staged in Dublin (that is, high quality stagings of non-Irish drama).

One final note of appreciation is for the show programme. Not only does it have several essays, one of them by Frayn himself, it also gives full-colour production shots. AND we also get a programme for Nothing On, the show that actors are supposed to be performing, which comes with a hilarious academic essay about the meaning of farce – an essay which is either a brilliant satire or a fairly typical piece of academic writing (I wasn’t 100% certain sometimes). I felt like I was getting good value for my 5 euro: I realised that I’ve become used to expecting something that has a cast list and 31 pages of ads.

So why don’t the Irish often write farce? I’m not sure. And I’m not sure why it is that when we do write farce, we have to do so within a far more tragic frame, as Walsh does in Walworth Farce. In any case, this production offers a great opportunity to see a form that is both very familiar (from film) and strangely unusual (in the Irish theatrical landscape).

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2 thoughts on “Michael Frayn’s NOISES OFF and Farce in Ireland

  1. I think the Declan Hughes translation of Tartuffe engaged many aspects of farce… Beckett certainly USES farce. Perhaps the prevalent Irish tradition is to USE farce rather than write it. To play with its techniques rather than produce classic examples of a form.

    I’ve always thought that comedy was about who people are and farce was about WHERE people are – but that’s probably an over-generalisation.

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