Wilton's Music Hall, London E1
Opened 18 November, 2008

In a delightful if arcane touch, the cover design for the published text of Adriano Shaplin’s play is by artist and musician Peter Blegvad, formerly the cartoonist behind a strip entitled Leviathan... Hobbes, Leviathan, geddit? In fact, this is possibly the most delightful thing about the enterprise, though far from the most arcane. Shaplin came to prominence writing relatively brief, absolutely intense plays for his American company The Riot Group. Now, as the first RSC/University of Warwick International Playwright in Residence, his work has expanded to fill the space available.
And my God, but there’s a lot of space: an RSC cast of 15, a reconfiguration of this Victorian musical hall into a mini-Swan Theatre with action taking place on four levels of stage, up the central aisle and in the gallery, and a play about... well... lots. The central strand is the contention in the 1660s between the then ageing Hobbes and the “Gresham divines” (subsequently the Royal Society), principally Robert Boyle and Robert Hooke, over whether the true path to knowledge lay through pure reasoning or observation and experimentation. It thus takes in science, theology, political philosophy (the play is set in the latter part of the English Commonwealth and the early years of the Restoration), and so on and so forth. There is also some by-play about the closure of theatres and status of actors, a soupçon of sexuality (why does the script require Boyle to be played by a woman?), and for good measure a couple of Ben Jonson-style common-man commentators, named pointedly after the Muppets Statler and Waldorf. There is much flaunting of verbal anachronism in the piece, though heaven knows to what end.
The play is not just brimming with ideas; they are not simply jam-packed; they are condensed at pressure into its two and three-quarter hours. And Elizabeth Freestone directs with a sense of high theatricality. The trouble is that the two fail almost entirely to connect with one another, so that one is neither intellectually nor dramatically interested in Stephen Boxer’s Hobbes, Amanda Hadingue’s Boyle, Jack Laskey’s Hooke or any of the others engaging (as so often in Shaplin’s work) in multi-vector power plays. I’m sure it can all be explained in minute detail, but that’s rather the point: if it needs to be, it isn’t working as theatre.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

Return to index of reviews for the year 2008

Return to master reviews index

Return to main theatre page

Return to Shutters homepage