Saturday, 3 January 2009


5/12/08, RSC, Wilton’s Music Hall

2hrs 50. New play by an American, Adriano Shaplin (from Burlington, VT, and a member of the Riot Group) about the early years of the Royal Society and the rise of empirical science (“natural philosophy”) as opposed to an older, purely intellectual approach to philosophy represented by the aged Thomas Hobbes, returned from exile in the dying days of Cromwell’s regime. One of the first productions by the RSC’s new ensemble, together for (two? three?) years, like the Histories ensemble. Commissioned jointly by the RSC and Mass Inst of Tech, of all people!

Wilton’s reconfigured. Steeply raked stalls going right up to the level of the gallery at the back: solves the problem of the lousy sight lines, though the bare back wall of the stage still means the acoustics aren’t up to much. A bridge across the top of the stage linking the gallery on either side, with a staircase down through the scaffolding onto the stage (which was also, I think, higher than normal and raked…).

Done in 17th century costume and written for the most part in a “high-flown” style which occasionally sounded authentically Restoration, at other times just overblown, but with occasional anachronistic modern interjections. Gresham’s College was referred to throughout as “our group”; one of the “actors” said “OK” at one point; the king, Charles II, was played by Arsher Ali as a kind of louche rockstar in fright wig. The last scene was an extract from Thomas Shadwell’s 1667 play, The Virtuoso, a satire on the “experimentall” philosophers and “virtuosi” of Gresham’s (by now the Royal Society) with their odd goings-on, like dissecting lobsters and building vacuum pumps – in other words, just the sort of thing we’ve seen the “real” virtuosi in Shaplin’s play getting up to.

A great sprawling play, not lacking ambition, but packed if anything with too many good things: any one of half a dozen elements could have been extracted and turned into a play in its own right. A cast of 15, never boring, but ultimately a bit unsatisfactory.

Hobbes (Stephen Boxer) was in fact a rather minor character and unsympathetic. He was a trimmer because he believed only a strong sovereign could save society from violence, war and disorder – which was one of the ideas that might have been worth expanding dramatically. His arrogance wouldn’t let him see that the Gresham-ites were the future: he engages in a pamphlet war with one who criticises (correctly) his grasp of geometry and then gatecrashes the Gresham-ites’ big presentation to the king with a curious dramatical-satirical interlude which lost me completely.

If the play was anyone’s tragedy it was Robert Hooke’s, the hunchback, working class mechanical genius recruited by one of the virtuosi and then stolen by another (Robert Boyle, Gresham’s wealthy patron as well as the framer of Boyle’s Law). Hooke (Jack Laskey – very good) eventually went mad, committing some of the same mistakes as Hobbes, refusing to admit, for instance, that the young Isaac Newton had done more than simply regurgitate Hooke’s ideas with one tiny addition – a failure to acknowledge, as D observed, that science progresses by each generation standing on giants’ shoulders.

The Gresham-ites, despite being the future, came across as rather unsympathetic – variously grasping, pompous, drunken and obsequious, except for Boyle who was an emotionless prig and was played for some reason by a woman (Amanda Hadingue) – the only woman in the cast, and one of the weaker links.

There was a sub-plot involving a pair of actors, thrown out of work by Cromwell’s closure of the theatres. One (played by the extraordinary Angus Wright – tall, angular, wonderful resonant posh voice; we saw him as the German officer in War Horse at the National) has been reduced to male prostitution in white facepaint and woman’s gown when picked up and recruited as companion by the homosexual Boyle. Then he falls out with Boyle when Hooke arrives, and ends up with Hobbes, enemy of all the Gresham-ites, helping to mount his satirical dramatic ambush. Confused? I was.

Quite a lot of the play was confusing, in fact. Maybe because Shaplin had tried to get too much in. At one point Boyle asks whether Hooke is a member of “our secret sect”, or words to that effect. Since Boyle has already been established as homosexual I thought that’s what he meant. My god, you ask yourself, was the entire Royal Society gay? Were the foundations of modern empirical science laid by a bunch of inverts? Later it becomes clear the sect is Anglicanism, driven underground by Cromwell’s Presbyterians.

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