By: Siobhan Nicholas
Directed by: Siobhan Nicholas and Chris Barnes
Venue: Mill Studio, Guildford
Date: Thursday 3rd March 2011
This was a very interesting one man show covering the life of Robert Hooke, an amazing member of the scientific community in England right at the time science was being developed on the basis of experimentation rather than philosophy. His contemporaries included Robert Boyle, Christopher Wren and Isaac Newton, and but for the latter’s apparent hostility to Hooke, we might all know his contribution to science much better than we do. Fortunately, a collection of his papers was discovered back in 2006; their discovery and possible auction triggered the writing of this play.
The first half was narrated by a painter and friend of Hooke, who knew him as he was growing up, mentored him, and brought him to London so he could develop and use his considerable talents. Unfortunately, his friend also became involved in the Rosicrucians, a secret group dedicated to the discovery of hidden knowledge, and the oath he took at that time caused him to betray his promise to support Hooke. Isaac Newton was also a member of the Rosicrucians, and eventually became its Grand Master, and there the troubles began. Newton disliked Hooke intensely, and Hooke’s achievements threatened to eclipse Newton’s, so Newton instructed this friend to spy on Hooke and pass on details of what work he was doing, what he was investigating, etc.
The second half showed us Hooke himself, who gave us his version of events. He was well aware that his erstwhile friend was working for Newton, and because of this he became ever more fearful of his work being stolen or worse still, destroyed. Hence he hid a bundle of papers away secretly, the same bundle that was rediscovered a few years ago. The halves were topped and tailed with sounds from the auction room, and I found myself getting quite tense about who would buy the papers and how much they would fetch. In the end, they were bought privately by the Royal Society who have had them transcribed and put on their website for all the world to view. This was tremendously good news, all the more so because Hooke believed in sharing knowledge and being open with his discoveries, unlike Newton who wanted to keep things secret until he could claim credit for them.
The biggest story of the night was Hooke’s realisation of gravity as the force by which the planets keep their places in the celestial dance. He sent his ideas to Newton, hoping the talented mathematician would collaborate on developing the theory, but was dismayed to find Newton publishing the theory of gravity as his own discovery several years later. With the finding of these papers, scientific history will have to be reassessed. In fact, Chris Barnes, after taking his bows at the end, pointed out that, with the work that’s been done on Hooke’s papers, some of the play’s lines will have to be changed. Never mind.
This was an interesting play which gave me a greater insight into the life and work of this most fascinating man. Chris Barnes’ dual performances as the painter and Hooke were marvellous, and there was a good deal of humour, which is so necessary for a subject like this.
© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me