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