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Hanging Hooke

A tale of celebrity, secrecy and betrayal, focussing on uncelebrated polymath genius Robert Hooke: Isaac Newton’s most hated rival

May 25, 2010
25 May 2010, O'Reilly Theatre, Keble College
Hanging Hooke is simply excellent, both as a play and as a performance. A one man play about an episode in the history of science does not sound like a great idea, so it is a testament to the skill of both the actor, Chris Barnes, and the playwright, Siobhán Nicholas, that it was so captivating.

In a nutshell, the story is about how Robert Hooke, a contemporary of Isaac Newton and Christopher Wren, was cheated out of his rightful place in the history books. It was Hooke, not Newton, who first described the laws of gravity, and it was only with the assistance of Hooke that Wren designed the dome at St. Paul's dome and other London landmarks. But Hooke’s eminent and respected contemporaries stole his ideas and, with conspiracy and betrayal, have kept him from being acknowledged. The story explains why, to this day, the theory of universal gravity conjures up a picture an apple falling on Newton's head.

Robert's Hooke absence from the history books teaches us a vital lesson about the world of science and human endeavour as a whole. We learn that, no matter how lofty and pure a subject may be, it must always be carried out by humans, who are always human after all. Hanging Hooke, told from the lips of Hooke and one of the men who betrayed him, reveals this truth with the sharp and poignant clarity of the first-person perspective.

Chris Barnes, playing Hooke, was simply fantastic. From the moment the lights went up to the final curtain you knew you were in capable hands. He told the story with energy and sincerity, delivering his lines with perfect timing and not a word out of place. His presence filled the theatre so well that it was only while applauding did I realise that I had been fully captivated for an hour and a half by just one man.

Hanging Hooke is a play of high quality. This is not some cheap and cheerful show that you might pop out for with the lads, and anyone looking for cheap thrills will be disappointed. Rather, this play is a worthy and respectable piece of theatre to nourish you intellectually and culturally. Basically, I guess what I'm trying to say is: go see it.

March 14, 2008
13 Mar 2008, Burton Taylor Studio
This is an enthralling piece of theatre for two reasons. One, the subject matter is absolutely riveting – it tells the story of (almost) forgotten genius Robert Hooke, a polymath who included draughtsmanship, architecture, engineering, mathematics, and the emerging study of “natural philosophy” among the many interests and activities at which he excelled. Born with a deformed spine and coming from a poorish family – his father was a country parson – he attracted mentors, got an excellent education, and was for many years the Curator of Experiments at the Royal Society. He was friends with and worked with the richer and better connected Boyle and Wren, but was never publicly rewarded in the same way, largely because of his famous and unedifying quarrels with Sir Isaac Newton, the éminence grise who blighted his hopes and, according to this play, nicked all his best ideas and passed them off as his own. Newton detested Hooke and did his best to eradicate him from history, destroying his portrait at the Royal Society (there is now no authentic image of Hooke) and he is only now receiving proper credit for all the important things he achieved.

The second reason is the performance of Chris Barnes. This is a one-man show and he is the man. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an actor work so hard for his living – he even delivered an entire speech while standing on his head at one point, which would be most impressive even in a fit young whippersnapper, but for a chap who’s not going to see fifty again and is probably sneaking up on sixty it was amazing. He looks a bit like Mervyn Peake’s drawing of Barquentine from Gormenghast – piercing eyes, a magnificently contoured nose reminiscent of Dartmoor, wild shoulder length grizzled hair. He started out at Jack Hoskyns, Hooke’s first mentor and friend, who later betrayed him by acting as a spy for Newton because of his membership of the secret society of the Rosy Cross, then metamorphosed into Hooke himself. His telling of the story was a tremendously dynamic, agonized, energized performance – like the Ancient Mariner, he wanted you to know his story, needed you to listen so badly, the tension was palpable as the sweat poured down his face. At last, unburdened of his final revelation, he relaxed to the audience’s frantic applause. It was a really memorable hour and a half. The Burton Taylor Studio is small and the theatrical experience intimate, intense. Rush out and get tickets now before it’s too late!
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