The Royal Shakespeare Company have taken over that atmospheric crumbling space Wilton's Music Hall to present a new play by American actor/writer Adriano Shaplin, who has been their writer in residence for the past two years. I'm always suspicious of plays which are partly devised by actors, and after reading some hostile reviews I went expecting to be annoyed or disappointed, or both. In fact I enjoyed Shaplin's play, which has some glaring faults but a lot of redeeming features. He sets himself an uphill task by plunging into an area of intellectual history that almost nobody knows about. Unless you've read Lisa Jardine's books (I haven't) the world of mid-17th century science is an area for specialists. The fight between Thomas Hobbes and the more experimental scientists who founded the Royal Society, exemplified by Robert Boyle and Robert Hooke, takes place in a zone where few of us are at home. Shaplin's play reminded me of Tom Stoppard's sortie into Russian intellectual history in The Coast of Utopia, another ambitious play about the history of ideas which didn't quite come off. These historic philosophical jousts fascinate playwrights, but do they make good theatre? I'm not saying Shaplin fails completely, but it's an uphill struggle all the way. The play starts with Oliver Cromwell closing the theatres, putting actors out of work and allowing the philosopher Thomas Hobbes to return home from abroad. In the introduction to my paperback copy of Hobbes' Leviathan, John Plamenatz writes: 'If he was never elected to the Royal Society, which he aspired to join, it was not owing to any reluctance on the part of its Royal Patron (Charles II); it was because he had incurred the hostility of various professors by his attacks on the universities and his failure to respect competence greater than his own. He was a very clever man who thought he understood more than he in fact did.' The first half of the play sets up the clash between the aggressive Hobbes and the experimental scientists quite well, but the second half is an anti-climax because Hobbes is less important. One of the faults of Shaplin's play is that although this play is supposed to be tragedy of Hobbes, he isn't really the main protagonist at all. Hooke dominates the meandering second half of the play, which fizzles out inconclusively. Structurally, it's a bit of a mess, and an excellent proof of the old maxim that it's best to work out the ending of the play before you start tapping away on the keyboard with act one. It's about half an hour too long, in my view. On the credit side, Shaplin creates a wonderfully muscular and poetic 17th century language that really sings. The relationship between Boyle and Hooke carries echoes of Prospero and Ariel. How about this speech by Boyle summing up his dispute with Hobbes:
HOOKE: What of Knowledge will we rely on?
BOYLE: None, for Knowledge is an old, handed-down thing./ Knowledge is earth bound,/It is too near to a fireside story corrupted by man,/ Facts are fresh and pure, they are innocent of man's intent,/ They are universal things, incorruptible; and if a fact is over-turned, it vanishes,/ It never was a fact. I've noticed knowledge hangs around, it hangs on men./ We will be more than men, we will be Divines./ It takes patience to proceed this way.
Here's another speech from Boyle to Hooke from the same scene:
Our first moments together here burn in my chest,/ I feel them now, and will not forget them,/ I take this radiant hear to mean you are my spirit's familiar,/ Mirror of my soul's inquiry and kindred missioner to the horizon of Enlightenment,/ Where wisdom meets the universe, to reinvent the light.
The aristocratic Boyle is played by a woman, an artistic choice not of the director but of the author, and though the reasons are not spelled out, I think it lends the character a certain distance from the rest of the group and works well in Amanda Hadingue's performance. Unfortunately this is a rather shouty public play, with few moments of quiet intimacy, and the characters are mostly two-dimensional. The acting by Jack Laskey as Hooke and the other leading characters is vigorous and muscular, though I felt Isaac Newton was rather underpowered. The three-story scaffold set is mostly used to good advantage, though there is a lot of pointless climbing around during a scene between Charles II and the scientists, and some equally unnecessary acrobatics towards the end of the second act. It's directed by Elizabeth Freestone, who I suspect is a name to watch.