Theatre in Wales

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On Failure, Audiences and Translation

Theatre Writer Book

Michael Frayn “Stage Directions” , Faber & Faber , October-20-08
Theatre Writer Book by Michael Frayn “Stage Directions” The collection brings together the introductions to the published plays. These divide between the plays of his own authorship and the adaptations from Russia drama. These may be occasional pieces but they are not lightweight “Where a work of fiction features historical characters and historical events”, begins the essay on “Copenhagen”, “it's reasonable to want to know how much of it is fiction and how much of it is history.” There follows forty-five pages of historical, thematic and dramatic exegesis. No more need be said about his brain-box of a play.

Frayn roams across the field of theatre deploying the sharpness of an eye trained in journalism. He mordantly describes how plays fail in London and New York in ways that are utterly different. He does not pass over his own career's lowest point. “Look, Look” was a West End failure on a historic scale. I was there early to see it in its brief spasm of life. I enjoyed it but could guess it was brilliant surface masking a disaster-in-waiting in concept. But wisdom is easy, and cheap, after the event.

Frayn was an early writer but a relatively late entrant to theatre. “Most playwrights start young when they are full of passion and certainty” he says. Uncertainty is of course part and parcel of the philosophical calling. “Often, by the age of thirty-six, which I was when my first play was produced, they have already got it out of their system, and sunk exhausted into obscurity, celebrity, or drink.”

Perhaps it is because he came late but unusually for a playwright he writes as an enthusiast for theatre from the perspective of an audience member. The writing is fulsome and deserves to be quoted in full.

“You sit through all the solemnities and pieties, all the things that ought to stir you to pity or indignation and don't, and you never not know what's going to catch you by the throat. Suddenly the old trick has happened yet again and you're sitting up, entirely alive- more than alive- outside yourself.

"Sometimes it has been sheer theatrical bravura that has kept me on the edge of my seat all evening...the Terry Hands “Cyrano” at the RSC, in Anthony Burgess's amazing translation. But then so has the pure exhilaration of language- in Mamet, for example- and the blaze of plot and language combined, in Racine. So has sheer truthfulness, as in Mike Leigh's organically grown confections, or the David Storey plays, which demonstrated for me the first time that the great world of work in which we all live could be represented on the stage.”

“I sometimes feel that the skill of the audience is not sufficiently recognised” he adds in an uncommon tribute. There are great moments in theatre. “These epiphanies are not isolated events, of course. The charge builds and builds before the lightning strikes; and the particles in which the electricity is stored are the audience.” Simon Callow liked this. “As good an account of what actually happens in a theatre as I have ever read” was his view.

Although the critics did not go for “Afterlife” I was whole-heartedly for it. The essay on the context of the action is both paradoxical and terrible. Frayn's research drew on the notebooks of Max Reinhardt. As a record of a director reading a play it too deserves to be quoted at length.

“Finally you have a complete optical and acoustic vision. You see every gesture, every step, every piece of furniture, the light, you hear every intonation, every rise in emotional temperature, the musicality of the idioms, the pauses, the different tempi. You feel every inward stirring, you know how it is to be concealed and when it is to be revealed. You hear every sob, every intake of breath. The way another character listens, every noise onstage and backstage. The influence of light.”

The last substantial section of “Stage Directions” is given over to the authors whom Frayn he has translated. Frayn learned Russian during his time of national service. He is not an adaptor in the sense of synthesising prior versions. He knows for instance that Russian does not have the definite and indefinite article. So Nina's line in “The Seagull” that declares “I am a seagull” is not that at all. Its translation should be “I am the seagull.” She is referring to the seagull in Trigorin's story. Frayn on Chekhov is a formidable critical force demolishing various drippy interpretations.

When Chekhov writes “like objects, like symptoms, entirely objectively, not attempting either to agree with them or to dispute them ... the artist must not be the judge of his characters and what they are talking about, but merely an impartial witness” it feels like Frayn's position too, evidence of a maturity of artistic sensibility.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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