Book review: Skios by Michael Frayn


As a genre, farce is the most rigidly deterministic of all literary forms, with consequences, farcical ones naturally, following ineluctably from actions. One of the key strengths of farce is that we, the audience or the reader, know what is going to happen but the characters don’t, so in the end the audience or reader is almost reduced to viewing the action through your fingers, so awful has the embarrassment become. Michael Frayn first became known for ‘Noises Off’, a farce that since its first performance in 1980 continues to be revived and performed.

But Frayn later went on to write ‘Copenhagen’, for me the best play about science ever written. In ‘Copenhagen’ he takes a mysterious incident in the lives of Niels Bohr and Werner von Heisenberg as the starting point for an investigation into the ramifications of the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics. For according to this view, quantum mechanics does not provide an objective description of the real world but rather deals with the various probabilities inherent in a situation – any possibility contained within a wave function may become real. This is the polar opposite of farcical determinism.

So what does Frayn do when he comes to write a new, post-‘Copenhagen’ farce? He writes a probabilistic collision with farcical determinism. And you know what: it almost works.


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