Thursday, 20 November 2008

Theatre Review: The Tragedy of Thomas Hobbes at Wilton's Music Hall

The Royal Shakespeare Company opens its London winter season with The Tragedy of Thomas Hobbes, at Wilton's Music Hall, a crumbling old relic down a back street in Tower Hill, which last night reeked of soporific mulled wine.

The play, like its venue, is a curious mix.

It's a new history. It's about English philosophy after the Civil War, by an American with an Italian name (Adriano Shaplin).

It's based in a time when theatre was banned, written in blank verse. It's very like Shakespeare, but with the occasional modern "Bollocks!" nudgingly reminding us of its relevance today.

In a time of massive change, upheaval and uncertainty (knowingly referred to as the "pamphlet age of instant reply") two factions develop. Hobbes, the celebrated philosopher, played by the John Hurt-like Stephen Boxer, is full of the arrogance that precedes a fall. Goaded by out-of-work actors Black and Rotten (James Garnon and Angus Wright provide punchy light relief), he battles a group of modern scientists. (You'll recognise Boyle – the one with the Law – and Newton at the very least.)

Despite its title, The Tragedy of Thomas Hobbes is actually an ensemble piece. Once Hobbes has met his comeuppance, the pendulum of tragedy continues to swing, as new kid of the block, Newton rails against Boyle's former protégé Robert Hooke (the gorgeous Jack Lasey), and a new generation of thinkers trample over the discoveries of the last.

Puritanical protector Cromwell pops up at the start; more dramatically pleasing is the rockstar king Charles played with relish by Arsher Ali. Ali, with his long hair, long cuffs and long legs in skinny jeans had more than a hint of Russell Brand about him. I couldn't help smile when Charlie looked mischievous about his naughtiness in exile, thinking about the currently disgraced Brand.

The Tragedy of Thomas Hobbes provides a fascinating insight into the development of scientific thought in the Restoration. The money required, the politics of patronage, the radical experiments going hand-in-hand with extreme religious views and fervent patriotism.

Does that make it sound rather dry? It isn't. Thomas Hobbes is also about personality, celebrity, ambition, authority, prodigy. Shapiro isn't afraid to tackle many tricksy topics; I've never been in an audience so deep in analytical conversation as the interval drew to a close.

I have to apologise for a lack of deep knowledge about all the -ologies, -isms and -osophies battered across the stage. But the play was no less enjoyable for that.

These RSC men (and one woman confusingly playing a man, Amanda Hadingue) are clearly enjoying themselves, as they chew through this meaty material. They swing and jump around Soutra Gilmour's terrific three-tiered set with so much energy over the two-and-three-quarter hours, it's impossible not to go with them.

The show's by no means perfect. You can't help feeling short-changed as too many characters with too many stories and too much science fly by without the time to elaborate. At one point, the play descends into physical theatre, ideas escaping as bodies surge about the stage; later, as London burns, you get the feeling you're watching a trilogy that's been mashed into one evening's entertainment.

Giving the final lines to the actors, as Hooke ran from his humiliation, was a little twee and in-jokey, and left the play feeling a little flat.

While the characters of Rotten and Black were high on the favourites list, Hooke, with his charismatic, troubled, love-me attitude, and scraggy indie band frontman appearance was surely who most of the audience were rooting for. Or was that just me? (Checking the script, it seems a final soliloquy from Boyle had been cut...)

Nevertheless, if you're getting excited about Channel 4's upcoming The Devil's Whore, are longing for something both a bit Shakespearean and totally unfamiliar, or just want to see high calibre acting in a remarkable setting, make sure you check this out.

The Tragedy of Thomas Hobbes plays at Wilton's Music Hall until 6 December.

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