The Tragedy Of Thomas Hobbes – December 2008


By Adriano Shaplin

Directed by Elizabeth Freestone

Company: RSC

Venue: Wilton’s Music Hall

Date: Saturday 6th December 2008

Wilton’s Music Hall currently has the decorators in, so it looks worse than any other temporary home the RSC has used in London to my knowledge. The toilets were OK, though strapped for space, but everything else could do with improvement. I wasn’t impressed with the acoustics, the chairs were comfortable enough (given the state of many West End theatres, they were above average) but space was at a premium in every direction. We arrived later than we would have liked so had to sit in the balcony, and my neck is just about de-cricked from the excessive twisting it had to do. The ice creams in the interval were below average, and I won’t even go into the horrendous crowd that was the bar area.

So with all this affecting my sensitive nature, it’s no surprise it took me a wee while to get involved in today’s performance. Also, not being able to see some of the action was a drawback, though not so serious as not being able to make out the dialogue clearly. Hence the comment about the acoustics. The volume was fine, but I just couldn’t make out enough of the words to follow the early stages. However, things improved, especially when there weren’t half-a-dozen people talking at the same time on stage, and I started to get what was going on about the time that Robert Boyle (I thought it was Foyle from the way they said it) took Rotten into his service and they attended a demonstration of an experiment (sadly, the dog died).

Basically this play, commissioned by MIT, is about the beginnings of full-blooded scientific research practices, and the tussle between the experimental scientists and the natural philosophers, such as Thomas Hobbes. The arguments didn’t always come across clearly, but I gather that Hobbes (he wrote Leviathan, don’t ask me what it was about) was in favour of rational thinking and testing of hypotheses, but stopped short of actually getting his hands dirty by testing said hypotheses against physical reality. The new boys on the block, including Boyle, Robert Hooke, some others less well known, and eventually Isaac Newton, wanted to go all out with repeatable experiments that would verify or refute theories.  And all of this was played out against the backdrop of the Civil War and the restoration of the monarchy under Charles II. It’s a busy period, and with so much to be crammed into just under three hours, there wasn’t much opportunity for a nap, thank goodness.

The play makes good use of self-deprecating and self-referencing humour. At the start of the second half, Rotten and Black, former actors currently resting due to the interregnum, are seen rehearsing a piece by Hobbes, which is intended to counter the arguments of his opposition. Rotten and Black make some entertaining comments about how they can change the piece to make it more acceptable to the audience, and suggest Hobbes play himself, but in disguise.  When they interrupt a demonstration by the newly formed Royal Society, they’re dismayed to find the king is present, so they don’t get to finish their piece. A shame, as Angus Wright looked particularly fetching in a large bush of pubic hair and not much else. The play itself finishes with an extract from another play, The Virtuoso by Thomas Shadwell, which poked fun at the new scientists and especially Robert Hooke. Hooke was now under threat from the up and coming Newton, and found himself in a similar position to Hobbes, with his views being derided and fresh approaches being put forward.

It may be that that was what was intended by the title of this piece; that the tragedy wasn’t just that of Hobbes, but the tragedy of any scientist who failed to keep up-to-date with his thinking. Other than that, I can’t for the life of me see why the title was chosen, as Thomas Hobbes himself is around far less than Boyle, and isn’t a particularly appealing character in any case. It’s still a good play, and I’d like a chance to see it in better circumstances than today’s.

The set was about as rickety-looking as the theatre itself, though with health and safety rampant, I suspect the scaffolding and ladders were actually more robust than the building they were in. Actors accessed all levels – we had them pounding the floorboards behind us a few times, which could be distracting, if only because it let us know the scene was coming to an end – and even came up through a trapdoor, as well as using the space in front of the stage, the sides of the auditorium, etc. About the only thing they didn’t do was swing from the ceiling, but if Michael Boyd had his way….

The performances were all very good, and possibly excellent, given our unfortunate location. I especially liked Arsher Ali, first as John  Lilburne, giving us his “what about the workers” diatribe, and then as Charles II, exiled to France and then resplendent as the restored king. He had a soft spot for Hobbes, his old tutor, but not soft enough to overlook his misbehaviour, nor to ignore that he had fallen behind the times. Stephen Boxer as Hobbes also gave us a good performance, though as I’ve said, there didn’t seem to be enough of it. Robert Boyle was played by Amanda Hadingue, the only woman in the cast, which did rather emphasise the lack of female roles in this play, while Jack Laskey was excellent as Robert Hooke, growing from young enthusiastic scientist from a poor background to self-important self-appointed leader of the scientific establishment, finally ousted by the likes of Isaac Newton. We were also treated to two old men, called Statler and Waldorf, à la The Muppets, who commented on the developments on stage, and even joined in a bit. Overall, it was an interesting play, and deserves better than a short run in this small, out-of-the-way theatre, I hope it gets it.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at

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