16 February, 2015Issue 27.3Critical TheoryLiteratureThe ArtsTheatre

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Noises From The Void

Benedict Morrison

Noises Off
Michael Frayn


Noises Off is, according to the New York Post, the “funniest farce ever written.” While this sounds like a compliment, indeed a glowing compliment, it also indicates the reputation which has held the play in a stranglehold since its formidable premiere in 1982. It is, after all, a truth universally acknowledged that farce is all very well for a fun night out at the theatre, but it is—isn’t it?—forgettable, trivial, insignificant. Noises Off has enjoyed plaudits and ovations for its uniquely impressive laugh quota, but has rarely been taken seriously. This, no doubt well-meaning, praise has marked a sustained underestimation of Michael Frayn’s hilarious account of the antics of a group of hapless thespians as they stage a farce called Nothing On. Even as these six characters in search of direction stagger through their half-remembered lines and mechanically-performed gestures, in the seeming chaos that surrounds them emerges an experimental piece of theatre with weighty existential concerns. This view is one which may not only raise sceptical eyebrows, but also prompt the outraged cry that so often attends attempts to draw out the more thoughtful achievements of comedy: “must we conspire to make everything serious?”

But there is no conspiracy here, no violent imposition on a funny script. The frivolity which jigs merrily at the heart of the play—the pratfalls, the dropped trousers, the groping for another lost contact lens—is not only the trigger for belly-laughs. It is also, undoubtedly, a playful swipe at the rather too earnest conventions of much theatre. Any attempt at psychologically rich characterisation is abandoned in favour of the ridiculous spectacle of two-dimensional figures ineptly discussing motivation as they try to portray resolutely one-dimensional stereotypes; a narrative arc built on conflict and development is sacrificed for a repetitive structure in which nothing much happens; and any kind of political message disappears in a cascade of showering sardines and collapsing curtains. Ultimately, the play’s triumph is precisely not to recognise the stark and unhelpful dichotomy of trivial-serious. Indeed, it is precisely through its understanding of just how forgettable, insignificant, and trivial farce is—and its remarkable play with those very qualities—that Noises Off offers one of the most daring critiques of theatrical meaning.

It is one of the play’s delicious conceits that even the characters—whose careers and life-savings are invested in Nothing On—consider it so trivial and insignificant that they can’t quite remember it. The metatheatrical mechanisms of Noises Off orbit this stark fact: this is a farce which seems to have no time for farce. And the humour arises from the spectacle of the self-forgetting farce forgetting itself in ever-more delirious cycles of forgetfulness. At the heart of this forgetfulness is a kind of diseased repetition. The first act of Nothing On—in various but equal states of disarray—is performed three times: in rehearsal in Weston-super-Mare, in a matinee performance in Ashton-under-Lyne, and in an evening performance in Stockton-on-Tees. Each reiterated line, delivered in the spasm of the panicked confusion of a misdelivery, bears the marks of decay and disorder. No utterance is purely itself; every utterance is a recycling, a fumbled re-use of borrowed words, sounds, meanings, so nearly (though never quite) what the audience has heard a short while before. In this frenetically repetitive play lurks a more serious mechanism, which Poststructuralists call iterability. As Christopher Norris describes it, paraphrasing Derrida:

This ‘iterability’, or power of being transferred from one specific context to another, is evidence that speech-acts cannot be confined to the unique self-present moment of meaning. They partake of the différance or distancing from origin that marks all language in so far as it exceeds and pre-exists the speaker’s intention.

This is the confounding of the logic which haunts the exam answers of GCSE students everywhere, that repetition emphasises and consolidates. Or, as Algirdas Greimas phrases it, that repetition can “guarantee the homogeneity of a discourse as utterance.”

In defiance of syllabuses everywhere, Noises Off sides decisively with Derrida, throbbing with the anarchic energy of iterability’s play of meaning. Noises Off stages the inherent recursion in plays—and, by extension, any utterance. Nothing On is not a simple linear structure, but, rather, a composite piece, a mosaic made up of clichés, quotations, and allusions, destined to be said and resaid ad infinitum. What looks like a finite, almost banally straightforward pattern is, in fact, an endless dance of decaying repetitions. Perfect companion piece to Derrida’s theories, Noises Off embodies the idea that:

something invisible is missing in this grammar of repetition… Repeated, the same line is no longer exactly the same, the ring no longer has exactly the same center, the origin has played.

Frayn, with delicious relish, toys with his audience, tickling them discreetly with these delicately controlled repetitions. Dotty, the eccentric star of Nothing On, likens her grasp of lines to a fruit machine: “I never know if it’s going to come out three oranges or two lemons and a banana.” Freddie, the well-intentioned buffoon who can’t help putting his foot in it, repeatedly enters, determined, despite a concussion, to deliver his crucial line about a tax demand. Selsdon, a gentleman actor well past his prime, dries repeatedly after the tantalising line, “They all say the same thing, they all say the same thing”; what follows each time is another in a series of variations on a theme, a set of nearly-right lines, in which syntactic rearrangement or homophonic confusion throws meaning into chaos.

Beating, pulse-like through the play, runs a tripartite rhythm: the three acts of the play, the performances of Nothing On, the pieces of fruit in Dotty’s arcade game, Freddie’s aborted efforts to talk about his tax demand. And, as Act III ends, in a wondrous coup de théâtre, three almost-but-not-quite-the-same burglars take to the stage, in a crazed hyper-performance of the staple gestures of theatrical farce. Again, this prominence afforded the number three is in perfect synchrony with Derrida’s theories:

… everything has begun with repetition. Once the center or the origin have begun by repeating themselves, by redoubling themselves, the double did not only add itself to the simple. It divided it and supplemented it. There was immediately a double origin plus its repetition. Three is the first figure of repetition. The last, too, for the abyss of representation always remains dominated by its rhythm, infinitely.

The apocalyptic imagery here is appropriate for the hysterical (in both senses of the word) atmosphere which characterises the final moments of the play. As the curtain (falling for the third time) collapses around these desperate, repetitive characters, Noises Off hits a note of such frenetic comic pitch that it is almost frightening. Before the audience—at the same moment as they roar with laughter at the spectacle of abject theatrical confusion—a ‘void’ of endless, ternary repetition gapes in front of them, a void in which terms are caught in an infinite cycle of repetition, their unstable meanings in endless play. Fixed sense is exposed as impossible.

And yet—the audience does not despair. The post-show foyers of theatres showing Noises Off are alive with laughter. Michael Frayn’s great genius lies in bringing us face to face with that void, and making us laugh at it. For, whatever else it is, Noises Off is a very funny play, a play about play, about the way in which language is caught in a wild, dislocated dance in which meaning is deferred, and giddily open to plural, boundless possibilities. For what else, the play asks, is theatre, but the comings-on and goings-off of stuttering figures in endless cycles that explode the possibility of any originary, complete meaning? And, for that matter—as Lloyd, director of Nothing On and self-proclaimed God suggests—what else is life? With its extraordinary, funny, stark arbitrariness, Noises Off nods as much to Beckett as to Whitehall Farces: “To find a form that accommodates the mess, that is the task of the artist now.”

Noises Off, a University of Oxford Student Company: Milk and Two Sugars production, is running at the Oxford Playhouse from Wednesday 18 – Saturday 21 February.

Benedict Morrison is reading for a DPhil in English at Merton College, Oxford. He is Managing Editor at the Oxonian Review.