Michael Frayn Season at Sheffield Theatres

Michael Frayn’s plays are as relevant now as they were when they were first written, says John Bull

March 1, 2012

Benefactors: impossible to find a solution that will satisfy all concerned

Michael Frayn Season at Sheffield Theatres

Copenhagen: Lyceum, 29 February-10 March

Benefactors: Studio, 1-24 March

Democracy: Crucible, 8-31 March

One year after Sheffield Theatres’ highly successful David Hare season, it is now offering a retrospective of the plays of Michael Frayn. It is a timely event, for it coincides with the transfer of the revival of his front-stage/backstage farce Noises Off (1982) from London’s Old Vic to the Novello, and thus affords a rethinking of the frequent division of Frayn’s dramatic works into the serious and the merely comic. However, the division is by no means as neat as that. Noises Off does, of course, borrow heavily from a popular - and frequently sent up, by Alan Bennett and Tom Stoppard among others - past repertoire of country-house comedies and thrillers; but it also has its roots in theatre practices that take us back at least as far as Pirandello.

The play’s attempts, exemplified in the very notion of rehearsal for a forthcoming production, to somehow conjure up order out of chaos refer both to the forthcoming production and to the lives of the characters involved in this process. It is familiar territory for Frayn. In Clockwise (1986), his screenplay had headmaster John Cleese dashing around in an ever-more-manic fashion as he tries to keep to a rigid timetable that everything he confronts conspires to thwart. In Alphabetical Order (1975), the efforts of a new employee to create order in her newspaper’s library are wrecked by the old hand’s delight in its confusion. Most memorably, in Make and Break (1980), Frayn had Leonard Rossiter, as a managing director of a company selling “fully demountable, fully adjustable walls”, confronting with enthusiastic glee the farcical potentials of a set, in a trade fair, consisting entirely of these very materials.

However, audiences anticipating an easy attack on the world of commerce would have been disappointed. Frayn’s is not a radical stance. He has written of the play: “Could anyone really think I am advocating a world without walls and doors? All I am trying to show is what they cost.”

This theme is elaborated on in the earliest of Frayn’s plays in the new Sheffield season. Benefactors (1984) is also concerned with an attempt to create order, in this case by David, an architect involved in a vast public housing project. It is a project, entailing as it does the removal of the current residents and their houses, that is opposed - for reasons both political and personal - by his friend and neighbour, Colin. The Machiavellian schemings of his adversary were given further weight in the first production by the fact that he was played by Tim Pigott-Smith following his terrifyingly brilliant presence in the long-running ITV series The Jewel in the Crown, which had finished screening the very day before Frayn’s play opened. The narrative traces David’s early idealistic stance against high-rise buildings through, as a result of an impossible barrage of rules and regulations, to his embracement of a scheme that would, if it were to be realised, result in “the highest residential buildings in Europe”.

Although the play is often very funny, Frayn is intent on using the relationships between the two married couples as a way not of arriving at a thematic conclusion but as a means of pointing to the impossibility of finding a solution that will satisfy all concerned, not excluding the never-seen current residents of the area. In the original production, the couples’ individual houses were located stage right and left. It was a concrete image of the irreconcilability of their binary opposition, and versions of this dualistic model are found frequently in Frayn’s stage work.

The narrative of the second play in the season, Democracy (2003), moves the action away from the kind of invented political landscape that he had explored in Clouds (1976) and Balmoral (1978), and directly into the world of German politics after 1969 and the election of Willy Brandt, “a Chancellor from the left again, after nearly forty years”. The backdrop for the play is the events across Europe the previous year, 1968, the support of many of whose German participants had allowed Brandt the opportunity to form a coalition government of his Social Democratic Party with the Liberals. 1968 is also both the year in which Benefactors opens, and when Frayn’s very first professional production, Jamie on a Flying Visit, was transmitted on television. The significance of this year for any consideration of Frayn’s work is that he was, and is, precisely not one of that generation of committed socialist playwrights, Howard Brenton and David Edgar included. In Democracy, he is concerned not with the political world of things as they might be, but with the day-to-day realities of political strife. It is a play that in these British coalition days might strike some very new chords.

Brandt is intent on bringing about the end of the Cold War and offering reconciliation between West and East Berlin. His party is theoretically united behind him, but actually involved in a shifting power struggle that will ultimately see Brandt ousted and left, at the end of the play, to ponder how things might have gone, as he and the audience hear the sound of the dismantling of the Berlin Wall in 1989. What gives the play its particular interest is Frayn’s concentration on the role of Gunter Guillaume, an ordinary party worker brought into the governmental machine in a token gesture - but a man who rises to become indispensable to his leader, even as he and his wife continue to operate as spies for the East German government. In the original production, there was again a use of simultaneous locations, with Guillaume not only moving from East to West to engage in dialogue with the two respective sides, but also moving from one group to another of schemers and tacticians within Brandt’s own party.

In the third play, Copenhagen (1998), Frayn again revisits a historical event, this time the meeting, in the city that gives the play its title, between Werner Heisenberg, the German theoretical physicist, and Niels Bohr, his Danish one-time mentor and colleague. The date is 1941, two years after the start of the Second World War, at a time when Denmark was occupied by German forces and, although the exact nature of the meeting remains a somewhat unknown and controversial subject, it is clear that the possibility of developing a nuclear bomb was very much on the agenda. Far from being daunted by the differing accounts of what took place, Frayn uses them as the basis for the structure of his play, as various attempts at reconstructing the meeting are made.

That these reconstructions are being undertaken after the deaths of all concerned points strongly towards the impossibility of reconciling conflicting recalls of history. Characteristically, Frayn is as interested in the attempt to reconstruct the past as he is with the realisation that it is a task that is more than Herculean. However, in the context of a contemporary theatre that has become more and more preoccupied with drama-documentary and verbatim drama, the seriousness of his endeavour is demonstrated by the long postscripts to the published versions of both Democracy and Copenhagen, in which the playwright gnaws away at questions of historical veracity.

What links these three plays is that they are all concerned with the connection between the public world of politics and the way in which individuals become involved in/compromised by it. The plays do not constitute a trilogy, but the choice is clearly not accidental. For Frayn, the worlds of the public and the private may collide but he is insistent that they cannot be separated: for him, there is no merely theoretical politics, no merely theoretical physics.

For me, a particular pleasure will be to see Copenhagen in the Lyceum Theatre, a location that mirrors the narrative of Benefactors, in that before it was beautifully restored and reopened in 1990 it was for so many years a site contested and fought over by the would-be redevelopers and the renovators. It is a story that Frayn might have immersed himself in.

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