It’s daunting to contemplate the list of previous publications at the front of Michael Frayn’s new novel. It’s almost farcical – a font half the size of the copy type and still it spreads to two columns: fiction, plays, translations, film and television, non-fiction, memoir … and that’s not counting his extensive journalism. Noises Off, the brilliant, long-running farce, is probably Frayn’s best-known piece. He wrote Skios, he says, because he was curious to see if he could do farce for the page rather than the stage. Could he pull it off without the actors? Of course he could. I did keep wondering, as I read, whether this story wouldn’t be better if played on the stage, preferably written by Frayn himself. Or by Shakespeare. The physical element of theatre would undoubtedly add another dimension to the comedy, but at the same time something would be lost: the internal musings of the confused central characters.
In the tradition of farce, the plot revolves around mistaken identity, mistaken bedrooms and the ensuing chaos. Skios is a small and picturesque Greek island. A group of wealthy English-speakers has gathered at the Fred Toppler Foundation for the annual Great European House Party. After seminars in Minoan cookery, early Christian meditation techniques, traditional Macedonian dancing and late medieval flower arrangement, they await the climax of the whole shebang, the Fred Toppler Lecture. Dr Norman Wilfred, a world-famous authority on the scientific organisation of science (sic), is this year’s lecturer. We meet him high above the ground, sipping business-class champagne and wondering why he does it, why, like a character from David Lodge’s Small World, he spends his life globe-trotting and strutting his stuff.
On the same flight is Oliver Fox, much younger than Wilfred, much thinner, and much, much better-looking, but equally jaded, equally eager for change. Which is why he knowingly takes the wrong suitcase from the carousel. Which is why he heads toward the blonde lady holding up the sign for Wilfred. The rest is slapstick of the highest order. Farce is by its nature over the top. But where some writers of farce go too far over the top, Frayn always refrains (sorry) from doing so. His is an English sense of the ridiculous. Skios is absurd, with laugh-out-loud moments and satirical touches. But as farce goes, it’s discreet, very intelligent and beautifully paced.
SKIOS, by Michael Frayn (Faber and Faber, $36.99).
Marion McLeod is a Wellington reviewer.