The Last Laugh: John Morrison on Why the Art of Farce Is an Extremely Serious Business

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Michael Frayn's Democracy might well be this year's best play, but his lasting reputation as a dramatist rests on a far more serious work. No, I don't mean Copenhagen, but the 1982 farce Noises Off, which he rewrote for a National Theatre revival in October 2000. From the moment Patricia Hodge first teetered across the Lyttelton stage, balancing a plate of sardines, this production by Jeremy Sams set a new standard for farce. It has recently closed after a three-year run, which involved successive spells in the West End, and touring just about everywhere, including New York. Good farce is a desperately serious business, which is why there is so little of it about. "Michael spent ten years on Noises Off," Sams told me. "In rehearsal, there were times when we took a whole day to do two minutes of text--it was like filming."

It is often argued that farce is an outmoded genre, killed off by our permissive society. When bourgeois conventions no longer apply, audiences no longer care about characters losing their trousers. By setting his play in a provincial theatre during a production of a trousers-down farce entitled Nothing On, Frayn simultaneously parodies the tradition and invents a new farce based on the theatre convention that, whatever disasters happen offstage, the show must go on. "It's an existential farce," says Sams. "An actor only exists on stage."

Another common belief about farce is that--like haute cuisine--it's something the French do better. It is true that Georges Feydeau was probably the all-time master of the genre, but this is no guarantee that French theatre always gets it right. Recently, I saw a painfully inadequate modern-dress version of Feydeau's Le Dindon (An Absolute Turkey) at the Comedie Francaise in Paris, directed by Lukas Hemleb, a German whose CV suggested he was unfamiliar with the art of farce. Instead of trusting Feydeau's 1896 text and meticulous stage directions, Hemleb had his actors slamming doors and tripping over the furniture at random, or sliding around on sloping floors. This turkey lived up to its name.

Because of censorship, Feydeau was slow to join other classic European dramatists in our theatrical mainstream. …