Friday , April 12 2024
The waning days of the repressive Protectorate being replaced by the hysterical gaiety of the Restoration is a period with great possibilities.

Theater Review (London): The Tragedy of Thomas Hobbes at Wilton’s Music Hall

When you call a play "the Tragedy of [name of famous philosopher here]", and get the Royal Shakespeare Company to stage it, the origins on which you're drawing can hardly be mistaken. And in the waning days of the repressive Protectorate, the hysterical gaiety of the Restoration, and the overlaying memories of Civil War, you've certainly got a tale that it's possible to imagine Shakespeare would have seized with glee.

But there was wise warning from the Bard that the playwright here, Adriano Shaplin, forgot: "the play's the thing". In telling the story of the struggle between the "traditional" philosopher Thomas Hobbes and his rival "natural philosophers" of the Royal Society, particularly the brilliant but erratic Robert Hooke (and this play might better have been called Hooke's tragedy), against the detailed background of the political and practical history of the time, Shalpin apparently forgot that this wasn't a school lesson.

You could use it as such – although you might come away with some pretty odd notions, such as that Cromwell died and the King was restored in 30 seconds, that the Great Fire of London was started by an old philosopher trying to avoid the secret police, and (for the younger and more gullible side of the audience) that Elvis was resurrected as Charles II.

The scenes seem almost to alternate between rapid expositions, often irrelevant to the plot and the characters, and long rambling bits with multiple characters arguing and drinking. It could be reality television.

That isn't to say it doesn't have its moments. Angus Wright as Rotten, the player cum prostitute cum foil for Hobbes' downfall, has a powerful, sensual stage presence that overcomes his character's bit-part status. And when allowed to fall into the Shakespearean clown role, his partner-in-crime, James Gannon, can be equally captivating.

Stephen Boxer as Hobbes nicely alternates solidly magisterial with frantic losing-it old man, and Jack Laskey makes a fine fist of the nervous boy genius turned overweening, drug-addled bag of ego, Robert Hooke.

Peter Shorey really didn't make it as Cromwell, however, and Asher Ali as the king is all over the place. Amanda Hadingue made a decent enough fist of Robert Boyle, but just why that character was cross-dressing, when none of the others were (beyond a bit of street byplay with Rotten), was never even hinted at.

None of this was helped by a script and a staging that swayed awkwardly between modern-dress and cod historic, and that couldn't decide whether to go for the cheap laughs of anachronistic language or make a serious bid for Shakespearean wit.

There's a warning here for any playwright looking to step into Shakespeare's shoes. The Bard might manage to romp through the Wars of the Roses, might cope with the complexities of intrigue in the Roman Senate, but basing a play on the real events in such a setting — writing what's truly a History Play — is a serious challenge indeed. The standard has been set. If you can't live up to it, it is probably better not to try.

About Natalie Bennett

Natalie blogs at Philobiblon, on books, history and all things feminist. In her public life she's the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales.

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