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 The Theatreguide.London Review


The Tragedy of Thomas Hobbes
Wilton's Music Hall November-December 2008

The Royal Shakespeare Company opens its London season with an ambitious new play by Adriano Shaplin, which attempts to explain and embody the scientific, religious and philosophical debates of the Seventeenth Century.

It has its moments, but overall it's a bit of a mess.

In the published text Shaplin gives credit to seven books and as many groups and individuals that he consulted in his research, and he clearly just has too much material to wrestle into coherent theatrical shape. The result plays like a first draft that wants a lot more editing, reshaping and refocusing before it could become successful drama.

Shaplin's subject, for at least two-thirds of his rambling play, is the antagonism between the old-line scientific philosophers led by Thomas Hobbes, who relied on ordinary observation, common sense and reasoning to explain the universe, and the new-style experimental scientists led by Robert Boyle and his chief technician Robert Hooke, who devoted themselves to controlled trial-and-error lab work.

Scientific debate quickly descended into personal animosity as both sides jockeyed for the patronage, first of Cromwell and later of Charles II (neither of whom had any particular interest in the subject).

The playwright takes so much time displaying all his research and setting the scene that it really isn't until late in the first act that the outlines of the conflict come clearly to the fore. And then he resolves them quickly in Act Two as Hobbes goes a little too far in his personal attacks, leading the King to side unenthusiastically with the Boyle camp.

And then the play falls apart completely. Hobbes disappears entirely from the stage and Boyle all but disappears, and for all practical purposes a new play begins, The Tragedy of Robert Hooke. Ironically, as Hooke takes over as leader of the experimenters he becomes as hidebound and closed-minded as Hobbes ever was, eventually becoming as much a figure of attack and ridicule as Hobbes.

Hooke's rise and fall is rushed through in the last half-hour and not made any more coherent by being accompanied by a complete change in performance style. Director Elizabeth Freestone, who up to this point has been running things more-or-less realistically, hands the reins to Movement Director Anna Morrissey, who has the cast play the rapid rise and fall of Hooke while writhing, miming and generally swanning about the stage in incongruous poses that I will guess are meant to be a stage vocabulary for time passing rapidly.

For some reason Shaplin calls for Boyle to be played by a woman, but neither Amanda Hadingue nor Stephen Boxer as Hobbes really registers much. One of the playwright's few successful flights of imagination is inventing two stage actors, put out of work by the Puritans, who become assistants to Hobbes and Boyle, and Angus Wright and James Garnon bring some life to their scenes of ironic commentary, as does Jack Laskey as the ambitious Hooke.

A play like this, with its large cast and sprawling scope, could only be done by a subsidised theatre like the RSC. And yet a commercial producer might well have demanded that the playwright cut some superfluous characters, tighten the script, clarify its intentions, and strengthen its thematic and emotional spine - and in the process made it a better play.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - The Tragedy of Thomas Hobbes - RSC at Wilton's Music Hall 2008