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5.0 out of 5 stars You can't go shopping for a good life, 18 Sep 2013
An astonishing play, written by J. B. Priestley within a few years of the first atomic bombs and set in 1975, when the Third World War has reduced Britain to a shadow of its former imperial self and sent it backwards into a pre-industrial past. Stephen Dawlish and his family live a quiet rural life: there's birdsong, but no cars (because there's no petrol) and no "ringing and buzzing" of telephones (the system broke and hasn't been fixed). He's under no delusions about the greatness of post-apocalyptic Britain: "This is a little backwater of a country, no longer busy doing the world's work."

Britain is not so insignificant that it cannot be descended upon by foreign powers greedy for natural resources, not unlike the way Britain itself used to plunder other, weaker nations. When three representatives of the new rulers of the world - an American, an Indian and a Russian - crash land their helicopter near the Dawlish farm, the scene is set for a remarkable encounter of world views and values.

Stephen explains to Mr Heimer, the American executive, why he's not tempted to sell out: "You can't go shopping for a good life. You have to live it." What constitutes the good life is the ethical question we should be asking ourselves every day, or at least once in a lifetime. Should we "look after machines all day to pay for other machines to entertain us half the night"? Should we care about the places we have to ruin to manufacture all the "bits of rubbish" of a consumer-driven society? Stephen speaks for many of us today when he admits: "We all like gadgets and toys. But the price we have to pay, sooner or later, is too high."

Heimer dismisses such talk as "small-time and small-town stuff." Stephen retorts: "Nearly as small as the Florence of Leonardo and the London of Shakespeare and Bacon, Mr Heimer." As if to illustrate his point, two of his grandchildren, Chris and Rosalie, come in from their work on the farm and lark around rehearsing Shakespeare. Chris does Caliban's famous Olympics "the isle is full of noises" speech and Rosalie helps him learn his lines from A Midsummer Night's Dream. Their creative life is a natural part of their daily life, not a cultural add-on for the purpose of passing an exam or impressing the neighbours. How can they find the time? A "whole lot of dusty stuff has dropped out."

Stephen explains that the beer Heimer is enjoying so much is "brewed by a local man who likes beer." This sums up a philosophy of work that most of us, it seems, can only envy and not emulate in the modern world (although microbreweries up and down the country are now rediscovering this style of work).

This localism is more than a slogan: it's being lived by the Dawlish family and their neighbours, out of necessity. The change has also exposed the lie that they were living in a democracy: "to make anything big work properly, you have to have a tremendous concentration of power. And where you have this concentration of power, there's no democracy." Again, this rings true today.

The Indian scientist, Dr Bahru, is a fascinating character, an admirable champion of science and an opponent of ignorance and superstition. His flaw, typical of the postwar period and still sadly around today, is to separate his scientific work from his moral responsibility. Margaret pulls him up on this, and she rightly emphasizes that scientists should not hide behind "that dangerous lie." In fact, she anticipates the work of Robert Hinde, who writes eloquently in Bending the Rules on ethics and science: "scientists are part of society and their work affects and is affected by the social context in which they live."

Bahru sticks up for science: "You cannot understand what science and industry have meant to us in India. There was so much ignorance, filth, superstition, poverty. I am proud to be an Indian scientist, Mrs Dawlish." The recent murder of Indian rationalist and sceptic Dr Narendra Dabholkar shows how India is still full of superstition in the 21st century. It's worth remembering the nasty side of mysticism as a counterweight to Margaret's talk of "angels and goddesses" and her lame idea that "the best knowledge we have is in our hearts and not in our heads."

The final foreigner is Madame Irina Shestova, perhaps the most intriguing of the three visitors, and certainly the character who experiences the most radical transformation as a result of her contact with the Dawlish family.

As in his far more famous play, An Inspector Calls, J. B. Priestley writes about another time (looking forwards in Summer's Day Dream rather than backwards) to create a commentary on his own day. Because he deals with big ideas - money, work, power - and the universals of love and loss, and because he is a great dramatist, these plays can speak to us today. At least, that was my experience this week when I saw the superb production directed by Alex Marker at the Finborough Theatre.
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Summer Day's Dream (Oberon Modern Plays)
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