The Tragedy of Thomas Hobbes
Royal Shakespeare Company
Wilton's Music Hall
Nobody could fault Adriano Shaplin for ambition on his RSC debut. The young American, best known for the only play ever to win a First of the Firsts in Edinburgh, Pugilist Specialist, is still under 30 and has penned a massive drama using a big cast playing multiple characters and addressing the very nature of scientific experimentation and artistic endeavour.
The venue for The Tragedy of Thomas Hobbes is the delightfully decrepit Wilton's Music Hall in the East End. There, Soutra Gilmour has constructed a playing area on half a dozen levels, best viewed from at least five rows back, where the seats are elevated to main stage height.
The play pits scientists against each other, first during the Puritanical days when Cromwell frowned on pleasure and then after his death, in the reign of a rockstar of a king, Charles II, gleefully portrayed by Arsher Ali.
The first opposition is between Stephen Boxer as Thomas Hobbes and the noble Lord Robert Boyle, a man with bottomless pockets, somewhat unusually played by Amanda Hadingue, the only female cast member.
Each builds a devoted faction. Hobbes is supported by a pair of banned actors, Rotten and Black played by Angus Wright and James Garnon. His nemesis has a trio of Ws, each of whom lacks charm and learning. They are overtaken as the play develops by a crook-backed genius from the Isle of Wight, Robert Hooke.
This second serious rival to Hobbes is played with charm and just a soupcon of fanaticism by Jack Laskey. He is an original thinker of a really special kind, inventing not only the air pump and vacuums but also a primitive wristwatch.
While Boyle and his followers are science junkies, the less clearly drawn Hobbes is more of a philosopher, whose greatest work, Leviathan, is still in print almost 400 years after its first publication.
The final great scientist is Isaac Newton, who, in laughing off both Hobbes and Hooke, proves both that greatness only lasts a generation and new discoveries soon leave the old forgotten, or at least devalued.
Having been cut to 2¾ hours, The Tragedy can seem both too long with its detailed scientific expositions and too short, as some cuts have probably hindered understanding and plot development.
Even so, it shows a good mind at work, exploring subject matter rarely seen on stage and we should be grateful to the RSC for supporting a fine young writer and giving him and director Elizabeth Freestone a top cast to work with, drawn from the existing compares for The Merchant of Venice and Taming of the Shrew.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher