On Wednesday 15th November 2017 the London public had a chance to listen to eminent playwright, novelist and translator Michael Frayn in discussion with his nephew, a journalist Julian Waters. The event was in Duke Street Church near Richmond station, and gathered around 150 people. It was a unique chance to see Michael Frayn in a quite relaxed, almost intimate atmosphere and ask him some questions afterwards. It seems that such discussions have become a tradition, as both men mentioned having done a similar interview a year ago and it seems that this annual discussion will take place next year, too.
Michael Frayn is the author of such famous plays as Donkey’s Years (Olivier award for Best Comedy in 1976), Noises Off (Olivier Award for Best Play in 1982), Copenhagen (Evening Standard award (1998) and Tony Award (2000) for Best Play) and Democracy (Evening Standard Award for Best Play in 2003), and also of the novels The Russian Interpreter, Headlong (shortlisted for 1999 Booker Prize), Spies (Whitbread Best Novel prize in 2002) and most recently Skios (2012). He is also a translator of Chekhov’s dramas into English as he has learned Russian in Cambridge. It was inspiring to get his insights into writing both plays and novels, and also to witness Frayn’s incredible sense of humour and the ability to bring out complex thoughts and considerations into a simple and lucid form.
Being a very gentle and kind invidividual in general, Michael Frayn was very open and friendly on this particular evening. When asked by Julian Waters about the inspiration behind his new collection of short plays called Pocket Playhouse, he started telling the audience stories from his own recent daily life, showing that farce situations are never far away. There was Frayn’s going to Boots to choose the reading glasses and leaving the shop with the feeling his sight had deteriorated only to realize he left his own glasses on the rack. Then there was the story of bringing the books to a local Oxfam shop only to understand after some heated discussion that it was a ‘Mother and baby’ shop. Then the discussion moved to more serious issues, although humour and funny stories were never too far away. Frayn mentioned the differences between writing a novel and writing a play. The former gives the writer an opportunity to reveal the inner psychological musings and thoughts of the characters and choose the author’s voice from many available options. The latter gives you a chance to present a group of characters who reveal their motives gradually and could lead even their creator to unknown lands. Michael Frayn also jokingly mentioned the author who never knew what he will write about after the first remarkable sentence that came to his mind. Frayn ironically remarked that it was a perfect way to a successful novel which was full of surprises for the author himself, but unless that was the way one wrote his novels, one had to always find the balance between revealing too much in the beginning and not protracting the events for them not to become too boring. If all novels started ‘The duchess was killed in the garden. It was the butler who did it’ which would be of course ideal information-wise why bother reading, Frayn joked.
There was also a very interesting reminiscence about Frayn’s favourite authors: he mentioned Flaubert’s ‘Sentimental Education’ and the scenes of fleeting happiness of its characters pictured against the backdrop of the 1848 Revolution in France. Frayn insisted that our lives are in a constant flux combining the comic and tragic moments, and the pinnacle of the writer’s craft is to be able to capture their constant mix, and it is Chekhov, in Frayn’s view, who mastered this in perfection. He also mentioned plays of James Graham (‘Ink’ and ‘This House’) which, in his view, were examples of clever modern dramatic writing, and mentioned enjoying seeing and reading other people’s work, as well as travelling with his wife Claire and spending time with his family. Frayn also jokingly described some experiences of seeing his two most famous plays ‘Noises Off’ and ‘Copenhagen’ staged abroad – in particular, in Germany, where, in Frayn’s view, the director’s theatre (Regitheatre) has been dominating the text to an extreme degree. Frayn mentioned ‘Copenhagen’ (which is a series of discussions between Nils Bohr, his wife Margrethe and his disciple and colleague Werner Heisenberg) being staged in a circus, and ‘Democracy’’s music arrangement consisting of 43 songs. Frayn also was not particularly impressed by Percival’s staging of ‘Noises Off’ in ‘Thalia Theatre’ as a moral play about the damaging effects of modern entertainment culture. Frayn finished the evening with a characteristically ironic remark about the use of creative writing courses, promising the audience to save them 1000 pounds by revealing the most important piece of advice: “Just Do It”.