In the atmospheric setting of Wilton’s Music Hall, simultaneously ancient and modern, the Royal Shakespeare Company launches its 2008 London season with the world premiere of The Tragedy Of Thomas Hobbes.
It is a fitting setting for this new piece which, although having been written within the last year, has the feeling of writing from a bygone age.
Set in the 1600s in a rapidly changing England, it charts the reign of Cromwell and return of Charles II, the rise of experimental science and the reaction to it from an older style of reasoned philosophy fearing for its crown. Written in blank verse, there is more than a little of the Shakespearean about the piece, though playwright Adriano Shaplin liberally sprinkles in modern references and phrases, reminding the audience every now and then that this is new.
Not that he needs to, as The Tragedy Of Thomas Hobbes owes as much to today as to the past. It is a stark reminder about history repeating itself and of the nature of man. Stephen Boxer’s arrogant Hobbes, believing the hype and celebrity built up around him, stands up against the new rising star, scientist Robert Hooke (Jack Laskey), only to find that celebrities are there to be deposed. Yet Hooke, a scientific genius, does not learn from what he sees, falling foul of the same vanity.
While the title suggests the piece is about the English philosopher, he is just one of a number of characters whose lives are exposed in this ensemble piece which reflects an era of change, upheaval and uncertainty knowingly referred to as the “pamphlet age of instant reply”. Among them, Angus Wright plays provocative, sexual, out of work actor Rotten, while his colleague Black (James Garnon) is a charismatic survivor in a country where theatre is banned. Arsher Ali, as the returning king, presents a figure more rock star than monarch; the addition of an electric guitar to his outfit would not have seemed out of place.
On the Soutra Gilmour-designed bare scaffolding stage of Wilton’s Music Hall, accompanied by a pair of musicians, Shaplin’s first history play examines a ground-breaking time for Britain through the eyes of today. There may not have been a credit crunch in the 17th century – though most property lost a little value during the Great Fire Of London – but in-fighting, one-upmanship, scientific skepticism and celebrity seem to be timeless.