Friday, November 21, 2008
The Tragedy of Thomas Hobbes at Wilton's
First the good. The RSC have chosen to stage their new production, The Tragedy of Thomas Hobbes in the wonderfully atmospheric space that is Wilton's Music Hall. Hidden in an East London alley, Wilton’s is, according to their website, “the world's oldest and last surviving grand music hall.”
The building is utterly lovely, barrel-ceilinged and beautiful, yet flaking and fading, its paint peeling, its windows boarded. But, gosh, it seems rather sad for a place that once resounded with gin and laughter to now be a venue for people to fidget through tedious RSC fare. That’s not to say that Adriano Shaplin's ambitious historical play is utterly without merit, that’s not true at all, it just manages to takes a period of innovation and energy and ideas and somehow sieve much of the magic out of it.
The play is pretty good at scene setting. This Tragedy takes place in the mid 17th century, post Civil War, pre-Restoration; the theatres have been closed and London is alive with intellectual chatter. This comes across well, but the play lacks a sense of dramatic structure and direction. Lots of famous figures flit on and then off again: oh look, there’s Cromwell and there’s a young Isaac Newton, but it all feels a bit quick and bitty.
Shaplin depicts the ideological clash between Hobbes, the political philosopher, and the men of science from Gresham College: Roberts Boyle and Hooke and, um, some others. I am always drawn to things that try and marry science and art, but am usually disappointed. OK, my knowledge of the period is admittedly fairly sketchy, but one would hope that wouldn’t be too much of a problem, that the writing would illuminate and clarify. Unfortunately the play seemed to go out of its way to make things more confusing then they needed to be: why was Robert Boyle played by a woman? Why was Charles II dressed like Lawrence Llewellyn Bowen (or was it supposed to be Russell Brand?) What was the point of the two men who sat up on the balcony and passed comment on the play? It’s not as if they shed any light on proceedings; they were credited as Statler and Waldorf but this is not a connection I would have made without reading the cast list. (On an unrelated note, the West End Whingers might be interested to know that the RSC wigs department also do a nice line in merkins).
This Tragedy is an ambitious thing certainly and one ripe with potential, but it felt in real need of taming and shaping. However it at least inspired me to go away and do a bit of reading about the period, if only to fill in the gaps of comprehension.
I was supposed to have company for this one, but my eminently sensible would-be companion, having clocked the running time (it's a long one) and Nicholas de Jongh's less than complimentary review, suddenly decided against it. I didn't even bother asking my mother, as she doesn't do theatre in the colder months unless guaranteed a pre- and post show glass of wine and a running time not in excess of ninety minutes. It’s probably a good thing my +1 skipped out, because as gorgeous as Wilton’s is, its decrepitude means that sightlines and acoustics are pretty poor – I had an achy neck for most of the following day from sitting side-on to the stage – and, horror of horrors, they, for this show at least, have an unreserved seating policy.