Hanging Hooke, St James Studio ★★★½

Reviewed for The Reviews Hub.

In any biography of the sciences covering the vast expansion of ideas and theories in the 17th Century, Robert Hooke should be ever present. Yet his name is perpetually overshadowed by his contemporaries, including Christopher Wren, with whom he collaborated on the rebuilding of London after the Great Fire, and Isaac Newton, who based the gravitational theories presented in his Principia Mathematica on principles that Hooke and others had previously discussed.

Hooke also made advances in microscopy, horology, astronomy and palaeontology, making him a true polymath and arguably worthy of the title of “England’s Leonardo”. Yet, among his peers, his name is remarkably less well-known, a phenomenon that Siobhán Nicholas’ play speculates upon, and in no small way seeks to redress.

Nicholas first presents Hooke through the eyes of the painter, John Hoskins (a fictional amalgam of the real life Hoskins and his son, also named John) who first spies the precociously talented Robert at play on the beaches in his native Isle of Wight, and brings him to the royal court of Charles I. From there, Hooke goes on to study at Oxford, a pauper among the monied who can hold his own in intellectual and philosophical debate, and who quickly rises to ascendency within the burgeoning Royal Society.

As both Hoskins and, later, Hooke himself, Chris Barnes is engaging. The transition from one character to another is performed well, with lighting and props reflecting the pose the artist has captured, as the actor sheds the artisan’s courtly robes to present the philosopher-scientist as an earthier, lowlier person.

And it is once Hooke takes centre stage that the mystery of why he disappeared from history is more fully explored. A number of theories are posited: that he was more interested in the advancement of science than personal aggrandisement; that the family of Christopher Wren highlighted their father’s involvement in the rebuilding of London at the expense of his friend and colleague; that Isaac Newton was obsessed with his own fame to the detriment of all others. Changes in the Royal Court and the rise of Rosicrucian secret societies are also posited as contributory factors.

Any possibility that Hooke’s attitudes to his peers and their achievements may have also paid into his decline into obscurity is less well explored – but the resulting story is a compelling narrative and one that encourages further study of this most fertile period of scientific discovery, as is surely the intent.

Bookended with audio linking Hooke’s life to the discovery in 2006 of his entire folio, once thought lost before emerging in the possessions of a Hampshire stately home owner, Hanging Hooke is at times a little too unsubtle in its quest to provide modern relevance for the scientist’s work. But its attempt to rehabilitate a man whose reputation was once lost to history is commendable.