In an admirable act of trans-Atlantic goodwill, the Royal Shakespeare Company has entrusted an American scribe, Adriano Shaplin, with the hefty task of reviving the British history play. “The Tragedy of Thomas Hobbes,” like the work of Shaplin¹s NY-based Riot Group, is bursting with good ideas and smart research, but Shaplin has taken on so many layers of political, scientific and social history that the play strains and lumbers under its own weight. Those with an existing interest in the material will revel in all the erudition, but the previously uninitiated are unlikely to be converted.
Co-commissioned (curiously enough) by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the play opens in the 1650s, during the dying days of the protectorate of Oliver Cromwell (Peter Shorey), and chronicles the fractious period in which Charles II (Arsher Ali) was restored to the throne.
Things were equally conflicted in the scientific community at the time: Belief in experience and the ultimate power of the monarchy, as represented by philosopher Hobbes (Stephen Boxer), was being challenged by a new generation of experimental scientists led by Robert Boyle (played as per Shaplin’s wishes, but still inexplicably, by a woman, Amanda Hadingue).
Cromwell’s repression of Britain’s creative life and Charles’ reopening of the theaters is represented here by two actors, Rotten (Angus Wright) and Black (James Garnon), who weave in and out of the various plots, stand outside and comment on the action, and at the end of the second act perform a play-within-a-play poking fun at the backstabbing goings-on in the newly-formed Royal Society of Scientists.
Although Hobbes is the title character, the audience is never really given adequate reason to care about him or understand the principles he is vainly fighting for; Shaplin creates much more interest in the heated relationships between the new breed of scientists led by Boyle and protege-turned-rival Robert Hooke (Jack Laskey).
More engaging still is the political backdrop: Though Cromwell himself only appears briefly, we hear interesting debates about the effects of his rule, and Ali’s playing of Charles as a self-indulgent rock-star king in a massive bouffant wig and pencil-leg jeans is amusingly irreverent.
The production’s most winning element, though, is the space itself: Wilton’s Music Hall, a gloriously decrepit (in fact, semi-derelict) 19th-century Victorian pile tucked away in London’s East End. Elizabeth Freestone’s three-tier staging attempts to make the most of the narrow, tall proscenium (though playing the crucial scene of Charles’ first encounter with the scientists squashed up on a platform seems misjudged).
But the excessive busyness of the staging, as it spills into the balconies and center aisle, ends up feeling like a somewhat desperate attempt to liven up an overwhelmingly heavy evening (three hours’ worth) of talk, talk, talk.
Though local critics have been sniffy, Shaplin is an explosively skilled writer; his combination of blank verse and prose dialogue in slightly heightened language sets the writing off convincingly from contemporary speech. But he has been over-indulged: A firmer dramaturgical hand might have trimmed back the excess to reveal a shorter and much stronger evening of informative and entertainingly delivered history and ideas.