Michael Frayn interview: ‘I haven’t had another idea for a play’
3rd May 2015
Michael Frayn: ‘I was in a very lucky generation’
As his series of short skits opens in London, playwright Michael Frayn talks to Dominic Cavendish about brevity, being critically mauled and how life has got harder for the younger generation. First published Daily Telegraph, 03 May 2015.
Last Sunday morning saw Ed Miliband grandstanding on the Andrew Marr Show, and repeating the phrase “Let me be absolutely clear about this” ad nauseam. The Labour leader may be pressed for time in the run-up to the election, but someone should be advising him to visit the Hampstead Theatre pronto.
Why? Because among a clutch of “short entertainments” by Michael Frayn being premiered there this week lurks a skit tailor-made for politicians like Red Ed. “The one [thing] I want to be absolutely clear about first is what I don’t mean by being clear,” an unnamed ass declares, before getting tied in knots in the struggle for definitions. In a minute, the vapidity of this rhetorical tic is roundly ridiculed.
“I wrote that one quite recently,” explains Frayn, now 81 but looking in tanned good health as he sips a cup of tea in a restaurant near Piccadilly Circus. He’s a writer who enjoys a formidable reputation for being both prolific and multi-talented. Gifted as a novelist, his most recent fiction being the gloriously entertaining Skios (2012), his profile has grown thanks to the heavy-weight nature of his best-known plays of the past decade or so, Copenhagen and Democracy. Gangly, genial but a little guarded, he scrutinises me through his specs even as he answers my questions with affable efficiency.
The phrase “absolutely clear” has taken hold across the political spectrum, he observes. “Politicians of all persuasions use it. Both Cameron and Miliband talk about being ‘absolutely clear’. They’ve got this formula. Do I despair about it? No, it tickled me, so I wrote about it.”
It’s funny how things work out. In a way Frayn is coming full circle with this soirée, Matchbox Theatre – based on an anthology of the same name published last year. The more minor forms of sketch and playlet have been integral to his creative personality throughout his life. As a child he delighted in his father doing little performances at Christmas – and made his own puppet theatre, too. As a Cambridge undergraduate studying Moral Sciences, he contributed sketches to Footlights and he contributed sketches for television while making his name as a columnist on The Guardian.
The most successful of his plays, Noises Off (1982), a hilarious evocation of a repertory farce going disastrously awry backstage and on, started as a 15-minute skit. Adept (thanks to the linguistic skills acquired on National Service) in translating Chekhov (“the man who put the cheque in Chekhov”, his contemporary Alan Bennett once quipped), he brought some one-act comedies by the Russian master into the West End in the late Eighties.
“I have to say that I like short things,” Frayn reflects. “Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus is very short – if he can give a complete account of the logic of the universe in 20,000 words why does anyone need more for anything?” He grins suddenly.
“There should be a law establishing 20,000 words as the target length for a book – if you write more, you get taxed so much per word. We’d all get through life a lot quicker.”
Interesting that he refers to Wittgenstein. Frayn is an ideas man – although perhaps in a less obvious way than the insistently cerebral Tom Stoppard – and the longer you look at his work the more you glean common threads binding apparently disparate themes: in particular, his recurrent interest in our attempt to perceive and construct patterns and order in a world that denies us certainties.
Self-effacing and reluctant to theorise about his writing, he leaves it to critics to make connections, but his defence of comedy suggests there’s a strong intellectual underpinning to even his lightest offering: “There are all kinds of ways of coming at the truth of behaviour.
“The fact that something is light-hearted doesn’t mean it isn’t serious. The underlying force of comedy has to be something serious or there wouldn’t be anything to laugh about. Quite a lot of comedy is about embarrassment – that’s sometimes treated as a trivial subject but it goes very deep into human nature. In all societies, people think their behaviour has to correspond to certain norms. It’s difficult if you feel you’re not matching up.”
A reason we admire Frayn, I think – but also find it hard to figure him out – is that he refuses simple categorisations. He has never been “in fashion”, was never numbered among the “committed” breed of playwrights who found favour at the Royal Court, has always been his own man.
His stock has risen and fallen – he suffered a memorable humiliation with his follow-up to Noises Off, Look Look (1990), an attempt to investigate the nature of the audience. It survived just 27 performances in the West End. Then, following acclaim for such heavyweight plays as Copenhagen and Democracy, he got a critical drubbing for Afterlife (2008) his verse-drama about the 20th-century Austrian director Max Reinhardt – about which Charles Spencer in the Telegraph groaned: “I could barely contain my yawns.”
He admits the brickbats were bruising: “Maybe unconsciously I was affected by the failure of Afterlife – maybe unconsciously that’s the reason I haven’t had another idea for a play.” But he has carried on writing, even if it’s the short stuff.
Frayn spends his days in leafy Petersham, south-west London, with his second wife, the biographer Claire Tomalin – not dreaming of a well-earned rest but rolling his sleeves up. In fact, in recent years, he has diversified his already eclectic output, most notably to non-fiction with My Father’s Fortune (2010), a poignant memoir about his salesman father, which also deals with the sudden, devastating death of his mother when he was 12.
“Noël Coward said working is usually more fun than having fun and I think that’s true. Writing is hard work but there’s a lot of pleasure to be had from it,” he says.
Talking of Coward, Frayn recalls the first-night present which Richard Briers gave him to celebrate his play The Two of Us, 45 years ago: Coward’s autobiography. It made a big impression.“I had seen his life as an unbroken success but when I read it I realised it wasn’t like that at all. He’d had all kinds of disasters.
“The moral was that if you can manage to stay alive long enough and keep doing the stuff, then, on the whole, people tend to remember the successes and not the failures.” Looking back, he is measured about his own success: “There’s been a lot of luck in it. Some much better writers than me have not made money out of it.” Plus, as he adds: “I was in a very lucky generation. Too young to serve in the war, but able to reap the benefits of the education system and the health service. It is much harder for young people now. Life has got harsher.”
The talk suddenly becomes gloomy. He doesn’t concern himself with which plays of his will survive, but in the air hangs the question of whether any of it – or us – will endure. “Civilisations do get destroyed,” he says. “The Roman civilisation was overcome. I suppose the same thing could happen again.” He finishes his tea. “The future is very uncertain.”
Matchbox Theatre is at Hampstead Theatre until June 6. Tickets: 020 7722 9301; hampsteadtheatre.com