Michael Frayn’s renowned farce Noises Off (Der nackte Wahnsinn to us Germans) by celebrated director Luk Perceval is on at the Thalia. And I was bound to go see it. “Bound” I say, because having read Frayn’s play in the context of a class on “Contemporary British Theatre” I am not exactly looking forward to it. The play, which is, for some reason, by many considered the funniest play in the pantheon of British plays, is characterised by a sense of humour that I can – for my own part – only term “plain”. However, to be fair, Frayn’s metadramatic play certainly has its subtler, ironic moments and much of its humour definitely relies on the right timing and the skills of the actors.
For those not familiar with it: We are presented with a group of mediocre actors, more or less kept at bay by irritable Lloyd, a middle-aged, disillusioned stage director desperately trying to make the best of the material (both the play and its players) available to him.
The play they are to perform – aptly called Nothing On – is a sex farce with little content and less logic. Heavily relying on mechanics, such as exits and entrances, and an absurd amount of plates of sardines, however, the company soon hits the wall and the dress rehearsal is bound to end in disaster.
The next act then presents us with the matinee; only, we can now see what’s going on backstage, the stage being turned 180 degrees. What is happening onstage, we can only hear; the performance we have to imagine. What becomes clear, however, is that – amateurish as they are – the actors’ private relationships and personal feuds become entangled with their performance, blurring the lines between onstage and offstage action. The outcome is – inevitably – chaotic mayhem including missed entries and many unintended laughs. Situational humour at its best.
The third and last act then forms the shambolic climax: The stage is turned again to face the audience and, as we are informed, the company’s tour is about to come to an end. Meanwhile the personal frictions have apparently escalated to a degree that renders an orderly performance virtually impossible. While the players strive to undermine each other’s stage performance, the play completely falls apart and can only half-heartedly be brought to an improvised end.
So much for the general outline – Back to the Thalia and “Der nackte Wahnsinn”:
The first act presents the audience with the company, their director and the play they are to perform. For those who might not have got the point that the play the group is to present is not exactly what one would call sophisticated, director Perceval has decided to spice it up with a number of bizarre costumes, performers who overact and make obscene dance moves on stage, a considerable amount of preposterous requisites (such as inflatable giant genitals or rubber sex toys) and – last, not least – a great deal of innuendo. Needless to say, the sardines have miraculously transformed into “Rollmöpse” – because “Möpse” = German for female breasts [insert laughter]. As the group of actors is struggling with both the play and their unenthusiastic director, the action on stage reaches a level bordering on slapstick. Helpless stage assistant Poppy (“Tinie”) is struggling with unhandy requisites, confidence-lacking Freddy is undergoing a severe theatrical identity crisis and former porn starlet Brooke (“Lulu”) is having a hard time finding her contact lenses and – as it were – herself on stage. What irritates me much more than the oversubscribed action on stage, however, is the audience roaring with laughter as Tinie, for the second time (and for what feels like an eternity) fiddles around with her bulky requisites and Lloyd (alias Rolf) gradually falls victim to his own furious passions. Quite ironically, as I glance around bewilderd, I notice that tonight’s audience pretty much resembles the one we are to imagine as the sex farce’s, i.e. Nothing On’s, audience: A group of pensioners set on amusing themselves, whatever the cost.
Having survived the first act and made it to the break, my anxiety rises, since 90 minutes have passed and two acts are still to come. It can, after all, only get better. I am keen on seeing how the cast will manage the challenging next two acts, much of their effects relying on exact timing and a subtle intermingling of the primary and the secondary fictional level; so I stay.
In Frayn, what we’re presented with now is a kind of organised chaos (organised by the playwright, that is), as the actors gradually lose their agency, their backstage social relationships affecting their performances on stage. The effect on the spectator comes close to what one would call dramatic irony since – unlike the fictional audience – we get a glimpse of both fictional levels: the backstage action and the way it affects the performance on stage. The love triangles that prompt these relations, however, totally get lost in the Thalia production as the action on stage slowly descends into senseless bedlam, the unnerving permanent (!) sound of something I would call “lift music” preventing the spectator from actually hearing what’s happening on the imaginary stage. Certainly not the best of ideas when most of the act’s comic effect is based on the relation between the two levels (onstage / backstage action). However, the laughter in the audience persists, as I exchange helpless glances of incomprehension with the young woman sitting next to me.
What is left of the third act is best described as an eternity of unrelated nonsense that I cannot accurately comment on because I am busy sending texts of despair to a friend of mine. What prompted director Luk Perceval to transform it into this festival of silliness he himself only knows. Any resemblance to a real play is purely coincidental at this point. The adaptation’s attempt to break the illusion and insert some sort of metadramatic comment (the exact nature of which remains obscure to me) towards the end of Act 2 seems helplessly out of place – characters speaking out of character to address the audience are not exactly innovative and not convincing in a play that appears otherwise to be counting on its audience’s bad sense of humour.
Back home, my first measure is to check the reviews. After all, it is not impossible that I’d been prejudiced or plainly unable to see the deeper meaning buried deep under an impenetrable surface of kitsch, false breasts and gigantic pink penis-balloons. I pause when I read Peter Kümmel’s review on Die Zeit’s homepage.
Its bottom line: the worse the production, the more tasteless the jokes, the louder the laughter.
This is certainly shown to be true for the sexist play-within-the-play, which is, after all, presented to be a crowd favourite and whose amusing affect on the fictional audience is even heightened by the series of absurd mishaps occurring on stage. However, thinking back, this also seems true for the actual Thalia audience. Did Perceval, when making this general statement about the thankless task of having to please the crowds, incorporate his own audience, rubbing his hands, sneering gleefully? Notably reconciled with the director’s production, and pleased with my own sense of intellectual superiority, I readily embrace this interpretation and feel a bit like an accomplice in the crime. The director’s crime of mocking his own audience.
Where? Thalia Theater, Alstertor 1, 20095 Hamburg
When? until June 30 2014
How much? 9 / 12 € for students, 13 – 35 € for regular tickets.
Alina was listening to the sound of doors slamming shut in her head while writing this review.