1990s >> 1999 >> no-1144-december-1999

Theatre Review: Inadequate and incomplete

Remember This by Stephen Poliakoff. National Theatre.

Stephen Poliakoff is a playwright who is clearly very interested in science and innovation, and in social consequences of technological innovation. In Breaking the Silence a dispossessed Jewish patriarch succeeds in inventing “the talkies” ten years before the trick was managed in the USA; in Blinded by the Sun (reviewed Socialist Standard, October 1996) market forces appear to distort the procedures of science and lead to the falsification of results; and now in Remember This we follow Rick, an imaginative innovator, who seems unable to cash in on his own inventions.

Unfortunately the play as presented still seems at the draft stage. The narrative line is frequently more fanciful than convincing, with the result that the behaviour of Rick and the other characters in the drama often seem implausible and unlikely. I found my credulity stretched almost to breaking point as the evening unfolded. Years ago they used to “try out” new plays—especially musicals—”out of town”. As a result early performances were seen as experimental, and changes were anticipated. I could have wished for a reprise of this antique tradition now.

Some years ago Peter Hall said of Poliakoff, “He always has an eye fixed on where society and fashion are going. His plays are evolutionary reflections of the social scene”. I don’t know what Hall meant by “evolutionary reflection”, but on the evidence of Remember This Poliakoff has yet to find a set of theoretical perspectives which would allow him to make sense of technological innovation and of the interplay between science, technology and social change.

Rick was first into wedding videos in the early 1980s and into the stretch cars which frequently ferried guests from marriage ceremony to reception, and now he makes the discovery that all his home videos made at the time are deteriorating. What are the implications, especially the economic and technological implications? How can punters be persuaded to transfer the treasured images of their past—their holidays, their children growing up, their children being born even—on to a new digital tape using digital cameras? How should Rick proceed? Poliakoff’s response is as unsatisfactory as it is incomplete.

A socialist would set any analysis of science and technology in an economic context. A socialist would hone in on the idea that it isn’t technology which drives society, but rather society which determines both the kind of technology which is produced and the use to which it is put. And spiralling through the whole analysis would be the notion that the economic system is prime, and that the interests of those who own the means of producing goods and services are paramount.

I’m not for a moment criticising Poliakoff because he hasn’t written a play from a socialist perspective. That is, quite properly, his choice. But a standard textbook on science, technology and society would mention the above ideas as being the basis for explaining observed behaviour. They are hardly contentious. Poliakoff’s writing needs to be informed by them.

In the programme Jack Bradley points to the supposed gap between the sciences and the liberal arts—the two cultures, as CP Snow had it 40 years ago—and he suggests that this debate is “a key to the heart of Poliakoff’s work”. If this is the case Poliakoff’s apparent ignorance of key aspects of history and contemporary social science seems especially ironic.

The play does offer some powerful ideas. Like the observation that as far as the captains of industry are concerned the greatest question of the day is “How (in a world of new products) to coax the average punter to keep up. The market depends on it! To make them keep upgrading their possessions . . . How to make people take the hook?” Or the idea that since the world of finance is so unpredictable and apparently irrational, and the impact of technology (as evidenced by the decaying of video images) so uncertain, that “everybody in the City has got really superstitious” and “like the Middle Ages . . . have little offerings on their computers, like lucky charms, and mascots, their favourite toys and trinkets”.

But a few interesting ideas are not enough. To my eyes Remember This is inadequate and incomplete. The cast do their best, but for the most part the occasion seems eminently forgettable.


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