Noises Off by Michael Frayn is a farce about a farce, and that is essentially all you need to know. It follows the production history in three parts (the dress rehearsal and two performances on the tour) of a new play called Nothing On. The lack of talent mixed with backstage drama sends the show into cataclysmic disaster. And it sure is fun to watch it burn.
It’s always hard to look at comedy with an analytical eye because so much of what happens is just to get a laugh. And nothing ruins a joke more than trying to explain it. So I hesitate to identify any major themes or key messages. However, that doesn’t mean there isn’t anything to unpack. First and foremost, the entire play is a love letter to the theatre (the art form, not the place). I say this not just because it is about well-meaning people trying to put on a play, but because the conflict only exists because this it’s live theater. It is not only a heightened state of performance but performance where the stakes are high because there is an audience a few feet away. And not only that, but the show captures the true ephemerality of theatre. Without getting too far down a philosophical rabbit-hole, essentially theatre (and almost all live performance) can never be truly replicated. Because each audience is different, each day is different, no performance can be the same, and each performance depends on the presence of live bodies. In Noises Off, we see the first act of Nothing On three different ways. Despite everyone’s best intentions, they can never get it right or the same as before. And that is theatre in a nutshell.
My last point is from a more meta perspective. This play is unreadable. Almost all of the jokes in the second act are physical. There are a few verbal jokes and punchlines sprinkled here and there, but even those have a situational and physical set up. And so, by unreadable I mean there is no way anyone could study this from a literary perspective. Think of all your English/literature classes breaking apart Shakespeare or Tennessee Williams. It comes from this idea that drama is another form of literature, and thus can be approached in somewhat the same way as you would a novel or piece of poetry. I couldn’t even imagine what that would look like for Noises Off. It is a play. And a play requires bodies, and lights, and sounds, and everything else to make a live performance. Noises Off is a statement of theatre as its own art form. And I love it for that.
Here are some additional interpretative thoughts I had after watching this show:
- Did Dotty and Greg break up between Act II and Act III? I say yes. Her responses to Gregs lines are ever so slightly more curt than the others (even taking to account that at this point she is making up everything as it goes along), she doesn’t react after he falls down the stairs, and most telling, in my opinion, when he slips on the sardines and slides straight into her chest there is a moment of coldness between them. Yes, it’s a terribly silly moment that wasn’t supposed to happen, but you would expect a couple to have a little glee that a mistake would end in a pseudo-sexual position. I think they broke up
- Did Lloyd hire Poppy because he was sleeping with her? At first, this sounds like Lloyd’s character. But, we never see a moment, even in the first act, when Lloyd seems even the least bit concerned with keeping her appeased as a romantic option. He tries very hard to make it look to Brooke that he only cares for her, and yet doesn’t make a similar effort for Poppy. Assuming he hired Brooke because he was or wanted to sleep with her (an assumption I feel good about making), then why would he hire for Poppy for the same reason unless he intended to juggle, which he clearly isn’t? So then, when did the relationship start? My instinct is to say that Poppy propositioned Lloyd for the job, rather than the other way around. Lloyd said ‘Sure, why not? I don’t have anything else to do this afternoon.’ Poppy harbored feelings from the single encounter, while Lloyd considered it a one-off fling and moved his attentions to Brooke. And if that timeline is correct that means that Poppy was pregnant before Act I, which I think is supported in the text when she runs off stage “I think I’m going to be sick.” It wasn’t just a phrase to convey revulsion, she had morning sickness.
- Why does Greg keep trying to improvise, especially in his scenes with Brooke? The short answer is because he thought he alone could save the show. He didn’t think about what other people were doing or needed to do. Greg wanted to save the day. And ultimately, that is why everything goes so wrong in Act III. Everyone wants to save the day, and no one is paying attention to what anyone else is trying to do. Greg believes he can improvise, Dotty believes she needs to clean up the sardines, Belinda believes she needs to be moral support, Brooke believes you say the lines and keep going. Everyone thinks they need to step in for Selsdon. Their downfall was a roomful of inflated egos.
This essay is based on the July 8, 2017 performance by Chautauqua Theater Company, directed by Andrew Borba.