Michael Frayn’s play “Skios,” is better than the novel.
However, the later was longlisted for the Man Booker prize while the former hasn’t been written. (Yet, to my knowledge.)
Frayn, whose laugh-a-minute play “Noises Off” has been produced over and over by countless professional and community theaters, is an established master of theatrical farce. Deservingly so. "Noises Off" is so well written it seems it would be hard to screw it up.
In Skios he attempts to skewer the globe-trotting speaker circuit and extravagant foundation conferences of 21st century life the way he poked fun at theater companies and their backstage blunders during the production of an imaginary play called “Nothing On” in “Noises Off.” And while he comically nails the pretentiousness of hoity-toits at the pinnacle of “civilization,” I wondered why I felt only mildly amused, mildly bored as I turned page after page of this short novel.
Perhaps it’s the people.
The embodied stereotypes of stage are fuller; stereotypes on the page seem so thin they almost topple over.
Gathered for the foundation’s annual Fred Toppler lecture, those people include a range of one-dimensional characters from the semi-wealthy to embedded intellectuals and a token poet, to the silent Russian grand dame. But the focus is on two types: the pudgy, aging, bland academic, Dr. Norman Wilfred, who has been invited to deliver his lecture on Scientometrics, and imposter, playboy, cad, Oliver Fox.
Of course both play against several female types. Chief among them is the organizer of yearly foundation house party, personal assistant, neat, nice, Nikki --so collected she looks like she belongs in a deodorant commercial. When she gets to the airport fantasy gets the better of her and she hopefully greets the rakishly good-looking Oliver Fox as Dr. Wilfred. Fox, opportunistic flim-flam man that he is, goes along for the adventure. He’s arrived early to the island for a tryst with a woman he met in a bar as a substitute for one who had rented the villa for them both, and then changed her plans.
An adventure it is. Two Greek taxi drivers, brothers Stavros and Spiros, whose limited English helps propel the plot, crisscross characters and luggage to opposite ends of the island. The whole turns on coincidence and mistaken identity; sexual tryst possibilities; jockeying for advancement; parallel, juxtaposed scenes; missed communications and miscommunications; and a shell game of passports and luggage.
Nevertheless, the jokes often fall flat. (Example: Yes, the second coming was at hand. Eric could sense it. Christian would come and he would be terrible.) Hah.....
Perhaps it’s the pace. Instead of the rat-a-tat tat repartee of dialogue, much of the humor often occurs in description slowing down the action, rather than speeding it up to rollicking, the way it might be if delivered by actors.
My mild response is not due to the intricately, carefully choreographed plot. Each element balances on another in a complex house of cards, often just movements and moments away from potential collapse. Dramatic tension builds as the lecture looms. Dr. Wilfred’s there to speak on “Innovation and Governance: The Promise of Scientometrics.” Can Fox fake it through the presentation the way he fakes it through all that comes before – casual conversation, question and answer period and dinner? Then another layer gets added: philanthropy may be a cover for something more nefarious. The Fred Toppler lecture offers a crescendo surprise worthy of epic farce. An ending I would love to see on screen.
Screen, again. Perhaps, no certainly, the problem is genre.
I read distractedly, constantly imagining the play, the movie. I want to hear the characters, see the sets.
Why, I ask repeatedly, did Frayn write this as a novel?
Perhaps, there are too many characters for the modern stage – only amateurs could afford such a huge cast and even they might have trouble.
Maybe a movie?
Perhaps Frayn planned all along to write a screenplay based on the novel’s reception.
Many years ago I had the chance to attend a lecture in which the keynote speaker, a well-known theater critic, joked about a conversation he had with academics about Shakespeare. One said it was a pity Shakespeare didn’t write novels. Oh how they missed the point of plays!
I think of the difference now. Some of it’s in the timing. Reading, though progressive like a play, allows you to go back and savor, to sink in; a play unfolds in space and time at it’s own pace taking you with it – or not. Frayn is so good at creating side-splitting farce, the kind it’s nearly impossible to withstand – unless you’re the one in control of turning the pages.
While I won’t recommend this book to friends and family, I’ll go see the movie with them.
When it comes out.