Former Drop The Dead Donkey actor Neil Pearson in Michael Frayn’s Noises Off
Michael Frayn’s Noises Off is routinely referred to as one of the funniest comic plays in the English language. Having just enjoyed a sensational run at both London’s West End and the Old Vic theatre, we caught up with former Drop The Dead Donkey star Neil Pearson to talk about Farce, why comedy is overlooked at awards season in favor of drama and why comic theatre is important to people in a recession.
As a comic actor, what have you noticed to be the biggest differences between stage and screen- are there dynamics and ideas that are unique to both arenas?
Well the first and most obvious thing is size. It was difficult with Drop the Dead Donkey because you are playing to an audience and your instinct is to play to them, but the main audience is the one that’s much closer than they are and that’s the audience through the camera, so you have to keep it smaller. With Noises Off, on the other, hand, it’s farce, so you’re playing it big. Big, however, doesn’t mean untruthful and you have to hit the back of quite big theatres, so there’s no room for screen subtlety in this.
And I take it, then, that improv is a bad idea, especially in that completely silent second act of Noises Off?
Improv on stage is a bad idea in a play where you can get hurt if it varies too much from performance to performance. People are falling down stairs, chasing each other around a crowded set…it has to be pretty much the same every night, you have choreograph it as tightly as you would a fight or a dance. While it’s a nightmare to rehearse, and we did have trouble early on, I’m pretty sure we’re on the right track now and the instant approval that you get from audience laughter tells us that we must be doing something right.
There are more and more comedy productions being represented on the stage, now, than I think there has been in years previous. Is there truth in the cliché that people in a recession flock towards comedy?
I guess there is, yes. These economically straitened times and people are looking for a laugh. I don’t think comedy ever goes out of fashion, though there might be a glut of them at the moment. I don’t that comedians and comic writers are ever short of work. Having a laugh is never something someone doesn’t want to do.
As well as working in comedy, you’ve also worked in politics in campaigning for the Labour party. Do you find that politics and comedy are a good mix?
I don’t think that comedy and anything are always a good mix. Comedy, first and foremost, has to be funny. I would contend that most comedies in order to be funny have to be true, which is true of farce. For farce to work you have to play it absolutely seriously; that’s what makes it funny. The fact that these terrible things are happening to people in front of you as a member of audience is funny, because of the situation that these people find themselves in, but also because it’s mingled with a sense of relief that it’s not happening to you. Mel Brookes once said that “tragedy is when you cut your finger; comedy is when I fall down an open sewer and die.” The fact that you are free from these nightmarish complications is what makes it funny.
Comedy is sometimes used like a scalpel: the make the point that is memorable. People remember funny lines and funny jokes: they circulate. So if you can attach a point of view to something that you wish to make as a comedy barb.
So where would you place Noises Off within the broad and gittering tradition of farce?
For me, Noises Off is right up there with the best of them. It’s a forensic examination of what’s funny and why we laugh. I don’t want to get too highfalutin about it, because the whole point of the evening is that you come out of the theatre aching with laughter. Frayn has a mighty brain and he has applied it as forensically to this play as he would to his more “serious work”. I would also content that comedy is serious business; people tend to think the word comedy means “not serious”. You can make points, savagely, through comedy. I mean, Will Ferrell, for example, Steve Carrell…will never win an Oscar for being the very, very best at what they do. It is seen as the poor relation of drama and I wish it wasn’t. It’s seen to be something that isn’t serious and should be tucked away or, at best, in it’s own category. So you now have the ridiculous situation, now, in the Golden Globes where you have best drama and you have best comedy / musical. I think we fail to take our comedians seriously.
“The best comedians are deadly serious”…
Absolutely. Look at, say Bill Hicks, and tell me that he’s just a funny guy.
What has it been like working with this cast and was difficult for everyone to lock- in during rehearsals?
Well, we’ve had and continue to have great shows. It has to be a communal effort- everyone has to work as part of team. It can be a nightmare to rehearse 45 minutes of stage direction; nobody speaks. You can’t rehearse it outside of the rehearsal space itself. It’s entirely movement based and you can’t rehearse that unless you have all eight cast members working with you during the rehearsal. It’s purely physical and entirely movement based. You can’t, as with most plays, go away, walk the dog and mumble the lines to yourself until they get under your skin. So, as a play, it presents unique problems. As a cast, we seem to have solved them.
How important is it in the rehearsal process to reign- in the excesses that farce can produce: does it ever get too over- the- top?
You have to rein that in. It’s a scientific medium, really. In Farce, the star of the show is the mechanism- the audience should be laughing at how it all works. Rules become apparent. The pace never slows in a Farce: it either goes at the same pace or it accelerates or it comes to an abrupt standstill. It never goes from crisis to no crisis; it only ever goes from crisis to different crisis. There are rules by which it all works and you try breaking them and you find that you can’t. And once you’ve identified those rules; once you’ve identified how this thing works, then it becomes easier to work on it, because you know that there a whole slew of things that you shouldn’t be working with and aren’t worth experimenting with and you can gladly cast aside.
With most dramas there are infinite ways of doing it right: you could see a million different ways of seeing a production of Chekhov and they will all bring something different. With high comedy like this, there’s only way of doing it and that’s the funniest way and once you’ve found the funniest way your job is not to change it; that’s counterintuitive for actors who are always trying to change things up to keep the production fresh. With comedy, you have to keep it at that boiling point for 17 weeks. It’s fun.
You play a director in the play. Did it change your perspective of what directors do and how taxing their job can be?
No, not at all: it confirmed them! I’ve been doing this for a long time and so has Michael and we’ve sat in rehearsal rooms weeks away from opening and he knows very well how that dynamic works and the angst and anxiety of actors as opening night approaches. It’s a love letter to the business, it pokes fun at it and it pokes fun at the type of people you often meet working in it, but it’s done fondly.
Is there a thin line between farce and satire in Noises Off?
I don’t think so, no. Michael was concerned, when he wrote the play 30 years ago, that it would just be understood as an in- joke among actors; that actors would love it but nobody else would it or they would think it was show business being navel- gazing and inward looking. The more we’ve done it, the more we understand that the audience enjoys being in on the joke- all that ‘It’ll Be Alright On The Night’ outtake footage. People like seeing when it all goes wrong. I think Michael aim in writing was to write an affectionate, gently lampooning snapshot of a certain strata of show business, but also to write possibly the funniest play in the English language that’s ever been written.
Noises Off runs in the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre from the 8th – 13th July at 7.30pm. Matiness: 10th and 13th July. Tickets from €18 on sale now. For more info go towww.bordgaisenergytheatre.ie