The Tragedy of Thomas Hobbes @ Wilton’s Music Hall, London

cast list
Arsher Ali, William Beck, Stephen Boxer, Keir Charles, John Paul Connolly, Simon Darwen, Adrian Decosta, Leonard Fenton, James Garnon, Amanda Hadingue, Jack Laskey, Will Sharpe, Peter Shorey, Larrington Walker, Angus Wright

directed by
Elizabeth Freestone
Billed as a dark Enlightenment comedy, the main issue with the RSC’s production of The Tragedy of Thomas Hobbes is that it’s, well, not particularly enlightening.

Adriano Shaplin, an RSC writer-in-residence and the co-founder of the Riot Group theatre company, can not be accused of a lack of ambition: his play is a bubbling pot of ideas in which fascinating nuggets occasionally float to the surface, but it lacks a satisfying dramatic structure and is fidget-inducingly long.

Set in the 17th century, post Civil War but pre-Reformation, the play depicts the clash of ideas between the political philosopher Thomas Hobbes, author of Leviathan and the Gresham College scientists, led by Roberts Boyle and Hooke, who would go on to form the Royal Society.
The play is good at scene setting; it successfully conveys the upheaval of the age, the thirst for discovery; the theatres have been closed by Cromwell and London ripples with revolutionary spirit. And there are some very memorable scenes, such as when the young Hooke, slope shouldered but confident of his own ability, dissects a dog with unfortunate consequences (for the dog) or when Hobbes gate-crashes the scientists’ presentation to the King.

But Shaplin is less good at injecting clarity into this rich sprawl, in giving it shape and purpose. Crucially, without a working knowledge of the period and the people it depicts, the play has a capacity to baffle, leaving behind too many unanswered questions: why is Robert Boyle played by a woman? Why is Charles II dressed like Lawrence Llewellyn Bowen? More importantly it fails to get across quite why Hobbes was considered the most significant political thinker of his day.

Soutra Gilmour’s three-level set, with its steps and ladders and scaffold poles is simple yet striking, requiring a lot of clambering from the actors, yet very much in keeping with the plays layered style. Elizabeth Freestone’s production makes good use of the performance space: the wonderful, crumbling Wilton’s Music Hall, which must rank as one of the most atmospheric venues in London, with its flaking paint and vaulted ceiling and its almost audible echo of past laughter.

Freestone has the actors bounding from the stage, running up the aisle and stalking around the balcony. But it gets to the point where one starts to wish they’d stay put on stage and start telling a more coherent story. Also, with so much of the play written in a period-appropriate fashion, the use of contemporary beat-driven music in some scenes seems odd and jarring.

Stephen Boxer and Jack Laskey were both very watchable as Hobbes and Hooke respectively, but like all else of interest in this production, their efforts were buried in a muddle of other stuff.

But for all its considerable noise and confusion, Shaplin’s play, to its credit, was at least inspiring, in as much as it left me eager to fill in the (admittedly sizeable) gaps in my knowledge of the age evoked, hungry to learn more about these men and the ideas they introduced to the world.

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