IT’S easily 10 years since Canberra REP staged Michael Frayn’s celebrated farce “Noises Off”, and director Cate Clelland, who did it last time too, hasn’t changed a thing, except for most of the cast.
Nor has she attempted to fiddle with it by changing the location, saying “I didn’t mind shifting Shakespeare but this is just such an English play…You couldn’t do ‘Don’s Party’ anywhere but in Australia, could you?”
Briefly, Frayn was inspired while watching, “From the Wings”, a performance of a play he’d written, thinking, “It was funnier from behind than in front, and I thought that one day I must write a farce from behind”.
And that’s what the play is all about, as a repertory theatre cast struggles to put on a play called “Nothing On” (that’s a double entendre). Mishaps, mayhem, ad-libbing and an unfortunate plate of sardines all have a part to play.
It’s arguably the most famous farce in the world, and it’s been translated into dozens of languages, so it must’ve touched a universal chord. It’s a considerable achievement that Frayn’s play has pretty well open overtaken the work of Georges Feydeau in popularity but then again, as Clelland says, “the French have the same theatrical sensibility”. And, a big bonus, it’s a play that even non-theatre people love.
As we watch the REP cast going through their paces, such as performer Lainie Hart struggling with an outrageous costume, Clelland reflects, “We don’t have true repertory theatre here, we never had…but we know what repertory companies are”. She’s talking about the kind of theatre where companies have several plays circulating in the repertoire all the time, the mainstay of British provincial theatre.
“Ten years is a long time and it’s not any easier,” says Andrew Kay, who is the only leftover actor from the previous production, agreeing that “Noises Off” is notoriously difficult to perform.
“Just as with real estate is location, location and location, with farce its timing, timing and timing,” Clelland chips in, adding that precision of movement and character is also essential.
At times, she says, it can be quite gruelling so that she’ll tell the cast, “okay this is the Clyde Mountain section”.
“You have to drill the cast like an army,” she says, especially with the extraordinary number of lines that are complete non sequiturs. It would be easy to “dry” in a farce like this.
Although company members Kay and Liz De Toth confirm that rehearsals have been a lot of fun, Clelland insists that it’s “deadly serious work”.
But now they’re ready to face audiences, so, on second thoughts, she decides she will go to dress rehearsal and tell them “the fun starts now”.
“Noises Off”, Theatre 3, Repertory Lane Acton November 18 to December 3, bookings to canberrarep.org.au or 6257 1950.
Photos by Helen Drum