About ten years ago I went to see Michael Frayn’s Noises Off in the West End. The play has been revived, and rewritten, many times since its first run in 1982 and its place in the farcical canon is undisputed. One consequence of its (entirely deserved) reputation for being hilarious is that audiences strongly expect it to make them laugh. More than that: they know it will make them laugh. The curtain at the Piccadilly Theatre went up to reveal ‘an open-plan living area, with a staircase leading to a gallery. A notable feature is the extensive range of entrances and exits provided … All in all, a superb example of the English set-builder’s craft – a place where the discerning theatregoer will feel instantly at home.’ (There’s a long comical description of it in the script.) An anticipatory chuckle rippled through the audience of discerning theatregoers. A telephone rang. Enter Mrs Clackett, ‘a housekeeper of character … carrying an imposing plate of sardines’, who answered the phone in a ponderous and unconvincing stage cockney: ‘Hello … Yes, but there’s no one here, love … No, Mr Brent’s not here … He lives here, yes, but he don’t live here now because he lives in Spain.’ Appreciative guffaws. She delivered the punchline: ‘They’re all in Spain!’ Huge roar of laughter. Which was odd, because so far the play hadn’t been at all funny – as, it soon transpired, it wasn’t meant to be.
The actress playing Mrs Clackett suddenly dropped her phoney accent and said: ‘And I take the sardines. No, I leave the sardines. No, I take the sardines.’ A voice from the back of the auditorium said: ‘You leave the sardines.’ Noises Off isn’t merely a farce: it’s a metafarce. Mrs Clackett is a character not in Noises Off but in Nothing On, a ‘classic’ English sex comedy that the characters in Noises Off, the cast of a touring theatre company, are preparing to put on. It’s the night before they’re due to open at the Grand Theatre, Weston-Super-Mare, and they’re nowhere near ready. Act Two (or, as the script has it, the second Act One, since we don’t see any more of Nothing On) takes place backstage halfway through the run; Act Three, on stage again, is the calamitous last night in Stockton-on-Tees. It’s a virtuoso piece of writing, not least because the conceit allows Frayn, and his audiences, to have it both ways: on the one hand, unlikely misunderstandings, young women running about in their underwear, men’s trousers falling down and all that carry on; on the other, an arch and knowing send-up of such simple theatrical pleasures.
Frayn’s very funny, very clever new novel, Skios, is concerned both with the mechanics of farce – and, by extension, the mechanics of other apparently predictable, rule-bound, artificial systems – and with the effects that our expectations, especially if we’re part of a crowd (such as the audience at a famously funny play), can have on our responses to people and situations, even in the face of overwhelming evidence that our expectations couldn’t have been more wrong. Skios – a fictional Greek island in the Aegean, not to be confused with the real islands of Skiathos, Chios or Skyros – is the site of the Fred Toppler Foundation, a cultural institute supposedly built on the site of a vanished temple of Athena, which every year hosts a Great European House Party. Guests include a Russian oligarch, a Saudi oil sheikh and Rhode Island’s second richest couple. (Frayn isn’t shy of national stereotypes.) Their hosts are Fred Toppler’s widow and her ‘friend’ Vassilis Papadopoulou, a great ‘patron and benefactor’. ‘In Athens Mr Papadopoulou made ministers and broke them. No one in Greece who had any hopes of remaining alive and well would want to put obstacles in the way of a candidate supported by Papadopoulou.’ Security on Skios is tight: so tight, in fact, that observant visitors may begin to wonder just what the foundation actually does. What are the boats that come and go in the middle of the night? What’s really in the crates marked ‘marine diesel spares’ that occasionally appear on the jetty? And what’s going on behind those high fences up on the hill where they claim to be digging a fifty-metre swimming pool?
The foundation’s front business culminates in an annual lecture, ‘one of the highlights of the Greek cultural calendar’. The guest speaker on this occasion is to be Dr Norman Wilfred, on the subject of ‘Innovation and Governance: The Promise of Scientometrics’. Booking him was the idea of Nikki Hook, Mrs Toppler’s PA, who thinks it was quite a coup, perhaps enough of one to make her the foundation’s next director. The current director, Christian Schneck, has retreated to his villa, where he lives like a hermit. Nikki goes to the airport to meet Wilfred. ‘He didn’t look at all as she would have expected him to look’: he’s a ‘rumpled young man with muddled, extraordinarily pale blond hair’ and ‘soft rueful eyes’.
And he isn’t Norman Wilfred: he’s Oliver Fox, who was meant to be coming to Skios with his girlfriend, Annuka Vos, to spend a week in a borrowed villa, but she’s just dumped him, so he asked a woman he met in a bar to come with him instead. But she – her name’s Georgie – has missed her flight. Downcast at the thought of having ‘to spend the next 24 hours sitting on his own in some dreary villa, which would turn out to have cockroaches and no working sanitation’, and thinking the owners have probably forgotten to arrange a taxi, Oliver can’t help himself when Nikki catches his eye and asks him if he’s Dr Wilfred. The dissimulation appears to take on a life of its own when they arrive at the foundation and Oliver finds that his suitcase is mysteriously full of Wilfred’s belongings.
By the time Wilfred has given up waiting for his luggage, leaving a solitary suitcase, which looks like his but isn’t, circling on the carousel, there’s only one person still waiting at arrivals, a taxi driver called Spiros with a ‘black wart like a fly on the end of his nose’. His brother, Stavros, also a taxi driver, has a black wart like a fly ‘in the middle of his bald head’, but everyone gets them confused. All the characters show a dangerous tendency to ignore the minor details that should allow them to tell the difference between people, or suitcases, or situations, that aren’t in fact identical. ‘Euphoksoliva?’ Spiros asks. Wilfred assumes he is being greeted in Greek – ‘The first syllable was familiar anyway. Good something, as in “euphemism” or “euphoria”’ – and gets into the taxi. Spiros drives ‘Fox Oliver’ to the villa as arranged.
Having set his leading men up in each other’s place, Frayn lets his farce run its more or less predictable course. Oliver sneaks into what he thinks is Nikki’s bedroom – the verandah on the right, she’d told him – but finds himself in Mrs Toppler’s room instead. ‘It is on the right,’ Nikki insists later, ‘if you’re inside.’ Right, left: it all depends on your point of view. Georgie meanwhile manages to catch a later flight, and arrives at the villa to find Wilfred asleep in the dark. Assuming he’s Oliver, she slips into bed beside him. Before you know it she’s locking herself naked in the bathroom with her mobile, leaving desperate messages on Oliver’s answerphone about the madman who’s taken his place: ‘He hasn’t done something to you, has he? Tied you up? Murdered you?’ Wilfred meanwhile calls the Fred Toppler Foundation’s switchboard to complain that ‘some woman has broken into the guest quarters.’
We are clearly in the world of Nothing On here. But we’re also in the self-aware, self-consciously theatrical world of Noises Off. Skios just about observes the classical unities of place (the island of Skios), time (a single 24-hour period) and action: everything that happens has its place in the mechanism of a single intricate plot. There’s a seam of theatrical imagery running through the novel. Nikki thinks of the areas of the foundation that aren’t visible to guests as ‘backstage’. Waiting for Wilfred at the airport, she ‘imagined an actress standing in the wings waiting for her entrance on a first night’:
Not the star of the show, perhaps, but that long moment of waiting for her cue, of checking yet again that she remembered her first line, was just as long for her as it was for the star. And it wasn’t possible to run through all the rest of her part. She couldn’t know how the volatile combination of her and her fellow actors, of text and set, of audience and circumstance, was going to turn out.
Walking down to breakfast the morning after breaking into Mrs Toppler’s bedroom, Oliver thinks that ‘even when things went humiliatingly, flesh-crawlingly wrong, as sooner or later they inevitably would, he would laugh about it, and [Nikki] would laugh with him’: on some level he knows he’s a character in a farce.
He acts the part of Wilfred so convincingly that he begins to think he may really be Wilfred. Even the narrative takes up calling him ‘Dr Wilfred’. Everyone at the foundation (well, almost everyone) is terribly impressed by him. Each person’s belief – or willing suspension of disbelief – helps everyone else maintain the charade. And the longer the deception goes on, the greater everyone’s stake in perpetuating it, because the stupider they’ll look if it’s exposed. It’s like the emperor’s new clothes, or a financial bubble. Frayn inflates the bubble with considerable skill, as the plot hovers close to the edge of total confusion but never tumbles over it. The reader never loses track of who’s really who or who has whose suitcase, even when Annuka Vos (inevitably) flies in with a third suitcase almost identical to the ones that Oliver and Wilfred brought with them. Georgie, having made her peace with Wilfred, soon finds herself locked naked in the bathroom of the villa again, with a furious Annuka – whom she has mistaken for the cleaner – outside:
Footsteps coming back, and another sudden volley of blows on the door.
‘My phone!’ the cleaning whatever-she-was was screaming. ‘Give me my phone! You’ve got my phone in there!’ …
Now she had a phone she could phone someone herself … Oliver, then? …
There, unbelievably, was his name, on the screen of the cleaning woman’s phone, waiting for her.
One of the reasons that farces, like thrillers, tend to date quite quickly is the prominence they give to the latest gadgetry. Eventually it becomes historically interesting – the typewriters, telegraphs and phonographs in Dracula, the telephones and airships in Vile Bodies – but nothing looks quite as old as last year’s new. In Frayn’s Towards the End of the Morning (1967), the new arrival who threatens to upset the comfortable ways of the crossword and nature notes department of an unnamed Fleet Street newspaper brings with him an electric typewriter and writes lyrics for pop songs. Headlong was published in 1999, when Google was just setting out on its campaign of global domination. The narrator has to keep taking the train to London to do research on the Bruegel he believes he has discovered in the fireplace of a ramshackle country house. He’s about to send a fax to his wife from their flat in Kentish Town when he remembers that they’ve taken their fax machine to their cottage (it’s part of the joke that he’d be in a symmetrical bind if he had the fax machine and she didn’t). An intimation of the technology that’s about to make all that slogging up and down obsolete comes in the library of the V&A:
I realise that I’m standing next to one of the computer terminals which list current research … It takes only a moment to tap in ‘Bruegel’ … and then the system takes over. It’s so swift and seductive – so unlike hunting back and forth through the broad fields of the microfiche reader, or stooping like a potato harvester over the dog-eared cards in the filing cabinets. No sooner has that merest hint of a wish been formulated than up come 114 different ways of satisfying it.
Even more than the internet, the ubiquitousness of mobile phones creates a problem for farce. But Frayn knows how to turn an obstacle into an opportunity. On the one hand, there’s no network coverage, or a battery goes dead, and then there’s the wrong kind of plug adaptor, or people get their phones mixed up, or drop them in the swimming pool; on the other hand, every means of communication is also a means of miscommunication. People really get into trouble once their phones start working. Wilfred rings the foundation switchboard to say he can’t find the way from his villa down to breakfast. He’s given detailed and accurate directions. But since he isn’t starting from the place they think he’s starting from, he’s soon lost among olive groves and herds of goats. Georgie, desperate, locked in the bathroom, calls Nikki: not because she’s on the other side of the island, but because they were best friends at school. As it happens, Georgie thinks Nikki is in the Alps, having misheard ‘Skios’ as ‘skiers’ (the novel is full of terrible puns). And because each imagines the other is hundreds of miles away, they’re no help to each other at all.
All the misunderstanding is compounded by everyone pretending to understand what everyone else is saying when they don’t have a clue. And this is where the farce takes on a satirical edge. We believe what we’re told by people we believe to be authoritative – scientists, priests, economists, politicians, novelists – and, worse, we believe it even when we don’t understand it.
‘That’s so true,’ said Mrs Comax. ‘People take everything on trust.’
‘Someone’s only got to say, “Hey, guys, I’m an expert,”’ said Mr Chuck Friendly, ‘and next thing he’s operating on the president’s brain, he’s running the space programme.’
‘Or no one says anything,’ said Mrs Chuck Friendly, ‘but people just think someone’s a genius, or whatever, and they don’t even know why they ever thought so in the first place!’
‘We’re all such fools!’ said Morton Rinkleman.
The narrator of Headlong has a theory that Bruegel’s pastoral landscapes ironically depict, by their complete absence of any reference to it, the brutality of the Spanish occupation of the Netherlands. He’s a little cracked, but it’s hard not to wonder whether something similar may be happening in Skios. On the face of it, it’s bizarre – tasteless, even – for Frayn to set the story in Greece. Or rather, in a fantasy version of Greece that has escaped the financial crisis, where ‘Mr Papadopoulou’ rather than the IMF could still plausibly be the power behind the scenes in Athens. Skios takes place in a cosy parallel universe, where Oliver can use the idea that the Dow Jones might ‘plunge’ 47 points as a hypothetical example of an extreme event (on 29 September 2008, when Congress rejected a $700 billion bailout plan after the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the Dow Jones dropped 778 points).
Twenty pages from the end, Frayn writes: ‘So all the many elements were now in place that would shape the culmination of this year’s Great European House Party. The various storylines were obviously about to come together to produce a single event of great complexity and significance. A showdown. The grand dénouement.’ He then briefly sketches out how the novel might be expected to end. But then ‘something else occurs’, which sets in motion an entirely unexpected end to the book. As with farcical plots, so with the global economy. The alternative reality in which Frayn’s characters are able to gad about isn’t, or isn’t only, the world of farce: it’s also the remote summer of 2008.