The overall effect resembles one of those Hollywood historical epics where famous names briefly flit on screen. For example, in the opening scene both Cromwell and John Lilburne make fleeting appearances and promptly vanish. I can see no dramatic reason why either of the characters, who could have sustained the play in their own right, is included, but it did set the tone for the evening.
It’s good to see such themes being tackled on stage – there are far too few plays that look at the impact that science has had on society - but it is far too long, perhaps director Elizabeth Freestone should have followed the lead of the experimenters and been much more ruthless with the scalpel. The last quarter of the play is particularly frenetic – including a slab of Thomas Shadwell’s The Virtuoso as a play within a play – and one gets the feeling that Shaplin didn’t really know how to end it.
And there are rather too many smug in-jokes: the constant references to the theatre, the references to the Internet and the Russell-Brand-like King do rather irritate after a while.
As for the title character, Stephen Boxer makes for an engaging Hobbes, quite literally the pub philosopher as he holds forth in taverns. There\'s little sign of the ancient and feeble old codger that the characters allude to, this is a hale and hearty fellow, well able to fight his corner.
There are a couple of engaging performances from Angus Wright and James Garnon as Rotten and Black, a pair of actors, and an energetic Robert Hooke courtesy of Jack Laskey. Robert Boyle is played by a woman, Amanda Hadingue, for no discernible reason, unless it’s to emphasise the scientist’s delicacy in eschewing the rough and tumble of the intellectual conflicts. And Soutra Gilmour’s design makes the most of Wilton’s wonderful décor.
One has to applaud Shaplin’s ambition in writing a play that covers the conflict between king and parliament, the role of religion and the place of science and the debate between the rationalist and empirical schools of philosophy, all at a time when, as Boyle says, society was “spinning faster at this moment than any other moment past”. But the volume of material is overwhelming, at half the length, it would have been a better play but there’s still plenty to chew on.