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Hogarth’s Progress

by on 30 September 2018

Salacious, Sordid and Stupendous

Hogarth’s Progress

by Nick Dear

Double Bill: The Art of Success and The Taste of the Town
World Premiere Production: RTK Productions at The Rose Theatre, Kingston until 21st October

Double review by Mark Aspen

Strip Me Naked, A Kick in the Guts, Cuckold’s Comfort: just a sample of the labels on gins from the nine thousand gin shops in the London of the 1750’s. Perhaps you would like to visit one, or perhaps a cock-fight, a brothel, a public flogging. As one of his contemporaries said, “It would take a Hogarth to describe” what you might see.

“It would take a Hogarth to describe” the rollicking, riotous, rumbustious start to The Rose Theatre’s The Art of Success, as it creates Georgian London before your very eyes, and then it is Hogarth himself who, with a huge splash of paint onto a giant canvas, opens that world vicariously to us.

And “it takes Hogarth to describe” and show us the scene at the Sublime Society where its “gentlemen” members, well into their wonted pub crawl, lie, somnolent and sozzled, amidst half devoured joints of meat and piles of empty bottles, awaking to plan the next round of the evening’s entertainment in the brothel upstairs.

 

The Art of Success is set around one such night for William Hogarth in 1730 and the days of its aftermath. The Taste of the Town mirrors that night thirty years on, with Hogarth still (mis-)firing on all cylinders in 1760, and the months of its aftermath. Against this background wash, the double bill paints a portrait of the matchless William Hogarth, artist, social commentator and champion of innovative art and British genius, in Hogarth’s Progress, a robust blockbuster that is altogether salacious, sordid and stupendous!

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In The Art of Success we see Hogarth trying to hold his own in an ultra-competitive society, and trying, with considerable difficulty, to stay faithful to his newly-married wife, Jane, with whom he had eloped, the daughter of his former teacher, Sir James Thornhill. This is the high-energy play of the two, reflecting the vigour and urgency of the life of a thirty-something of ambition. However, this ambition is tainted with insecurity; and the ingenious design and presentation of the play lets us see inside the mind of Hogarth as, with the help of copious amounts of alcohol, dreams, nightmares and reality blur together where they meet.

The more realistic and reflective approach in The Taste of the Town lowers the freneticism, but does not lose its punch. Now we see Hogarth as a man in his sixties, still trying to come to terms with his wife, and with his prickly mother-in-law, the haughty, and indeed thorny, Lady Thornhill. Although highly successful, his insecurity is now around his acceptance as a serious artist, particularly from an establishment that holds his arch-rival Sir Joshua Reynolds in greater esteem, an esteem bolstered by the over-arching arbiter of Taste, Horace Walpole.

Designer, Andrew D Edwards creates a big statement, a set that comprises a stage-height easel and canvas that serves to catch the projections of the video designs of Douglas O’Conell and the lighting designs of James Whiteside. Moreover, it revolves and transforms to become various rooms and settings for a vigorous world that overflows with life.

Upon this canvas, director Anthony Banks splashes a dynamic depiction of Hogarth’s world. His approach may replicate the overstated view of the debauched times of Hogarth’s own series of Progress etchings. It may caricature the personalities who inhabit it, but they all deserve to be writ large. The picture is colourful in its darkness, big and bold, roaring and robust.

From the opening dance sequence, to Olly Fox’s music, we see a cast that is working seamlessly as an ensemble, but an ensemble that is a foil for many noteworthy individual performances. Almost all the cast double the roles between the two plays (and within a play) and the differentiation of characterisations is remarkable, unmistakable and accurate.

Perhaps a key to the timbre of Hogarth’s Progress are the characters of Oliver and Horace Walpole, both played by Ian Hallard in the respective plays. Hallard is called upon to point up his two aristocratic characters the most. So we have Oliver, a Viscount as grotesque as any figure in a Hogarth engraving. He is a perverted solipsistic monster, uncaring and sexually predatory, well accounted for in Hallard’s gloves-off depiction. In contrast the historical figure of Horace Walpole, Twickenham’s “natural celibate” and creator of Strawberry Hill, is a far more subtle character. Hallard’s portrayal of Walpole is of a precious fop, effeminate but by no means effete, for Walpole has and keeps the upper hand when confronted by a disaffected and well inebriated Hogarth.

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ArtSuc12Another real character lampooned is Queen Caroline, Consort of George II, who in assumed the regency at the end of the King’s reign and did exercise a lot of power over the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole, although perhaps not in quite the way depicted in The Art of Success. Nevertheless, Susannah Harker has huge fun with this role, as a dominatrix par excellence. In The Taste of the Town, she plays with equal verve the older Jane Hogarth, yet to reconcile herself to her husband’s foibles, a mixture of exasperation and reluctant acceptance. Sir Robert Walpole is presented somewhat larger than life by Mark Umbers as a ruthless retainer of power, who would sell his own grandmother for his own advancement. Here we see him manipulating would-be satirists, Henry Fielding, although not entirely successfully, and Hogarth himself, more successfully, much to Hogarth’s shame. In The Taste of the Town, Umbers takes on the role of David Garrick, Hampton’s renowned actor (whose memory is locally perpetuated at Garrick’s Temple to Shakespeare) a confidant to Jane Hogarth, and “mate” to Hogarth. Garrick goes on a prolonged pub-crawl with Hogarth, on foot from Chiswick towards Hampton, losing him at Strawberry Hill. However, “losing” Hogarth is a shrewd move when he realises that Hogarth is to confront Horace Walpole, for Garrick is painted as a likable but hyper-conceited man, yet one willing to play both ends against the middle.

Talk1Unfortunately, the lone and well-oiled Hogarth is vulnerable to misfortune, which he meets on the way home at Twickenham Ferry, in the form of a prostitute, Nancy, and a war-wounded discharged fusilier Zachariah Blunt, who (using a blunt instrument) relieves Hogarth of his purse, boots and topcoat. Ben Deery plays Blunt as a hard-man, but one with a soft spot for culture (demonstrated by feeding Garrick’s conceit). Deery first appears as Frank, one of the reprobates of the Sublime Society, in a clearly enjoyed performance.

ArtSuc6One of the best-known historical figures from the Sublime Society is Henry Fielding, the satirical playwright and legal activist, whom we see railing against the establishment and especially Sir Robert Walpole. In The Art of Success one might say, tongue in cheek, that he seems to be gathering material for his later novel, Tom Jones, although it is Fielding who contrasts love and lust, “… we betray love”. Jack Derges clearly relishes the part of Fielding, which he plays with great vigour. His talents were however underutilised in The Taste of the Town as the timid rector, Parson Venables, a part unfortunately rather underwritten.

It is the lower class women characters who benefit from three-dimensionally written parts. Emma Cunliffe excels as the tart-with-a-heart, Louisa. An habitué at Louisa’s lodgings, the young Hogarth has long been a companion of Louisa and they have a mutual affection that transcends their commercial relationship. Cunliffe puts a considerable depth into the role of Louisa, making her one of the more compassionate characters. She later appears as an early feminist, Mrs Colquhoun, a character perhaps based on one of the many society women who hosted learned soirées in the late Georgian period.

Another class transformation is made by Sylvestra le Touzel as brothel keeper Mrs Needham and later as Lady Thornhill. “Mother” Needham, was notorious procuress who ran the most exclusive bawdy-house in London who died as a result of injuries received when sentenced to stand in the pillory. Le Touzel gives a very strong and sympathetic performance as Mrs Needham, forthright but understanding. As the equally plainspoken Lady Thornhill, Le Touzel’s depiction is of an acerbic and scornful grande-dame, someone you contradict at your peril, but respect at your will.

Ruby Bentall’s characters again span the social spectrum. Whilst being the common prostitute, Nancy of whom the older Hogarth falls foul at Twickenham, she earlier is Jane, daughter of Sir James Thornhill, the young Hogarth’s new wife. Bentall’s Jane makes an emotional journey from the somewhat immature newly-wed to the power-behind-the-throne wife, and developing a sexual inquisitiveness along the way.

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Perhaps the most interesting character is Sarah Sprackling, a convicted murderess, based on a real-life criminal notorious of the time, whom Hogarth visited in Newgate to draw in order to sell engravings to a prurient public. Sarah Sprackling poses the questions pertinently implied in Hogarth’s Progress: What is the value of art? What is life for? What is reputation? As such she reflects precisely the questions that rattle through Hogarth’s own mind. Jasmine Jones is outstanding as Sarah Sprackling, a truly frightening portrayal of a woman whose mind is sharpened by her impending death, a portrayal that totally gripped the audience, but with an empathy and depth. In one of the most shocking moments in the play, we are catapulted into the mind of a woman who would violently defend her reputation above all else. She does not like the salacious style of Hogarth’s drawing of her. She is content to be vilified as a murderess, but not as an implied prostitute. Jones’ edgy engagement with the character is all-absorbing. Then later we see Jones as Bridget, the older Hogarth’s maid, a totally different, but equally engaging character, youthful, bright and loving.

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The double bill is eponymously centred on Hogarth, whom we see as a multi-faceted character with a complexity of motivations, often contrarian in his actions. He is full of conflicts. Art is a high expression of spirit; or a cash-cow to be exploited. Women are to be loved, cherished and protected; or are simply objects of lust to be used in self-gratification. Social advancement is mere snobbery; or is an essential ratchet when cranking up power and wealth. Reputation honours others and is a key to self-respect, or just a worthless vanity. Bryan Dick plays the young Hogarth in The Art of Success as a buzzing jack-the-lad, jam-packing the part with energy. There is much farce in this play and he has the physicality to put this over, whilst not losing the urgency, audacity and alacrity of the ambitious Hogarth at the start of his career.

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Keith Allen as the older Hogarth in The Taste of the Town is world-weary and disaffected, a blustering bully. However, what we do see in Allen’s performance is a Hogarth that is also capable of introspection, who realises he may have reached his limits. He is also a man frustrated by not achieving all the he knows he is capable of achieving. There is a memorable scene during Hogarth’s ineffective confrontation with Horace Walpole, when these two very differ personalities put aside their differences as they weep over their dead dogs. (To the amusement of a twenty-first century audience, Hogarth’s pug was actually called Trump.)

The two actors’ performances complement each other in that we can believe that one is the same man thirty years on.

However, the credibility of the older Hogarth is somewhat marred by the script, with (and I risk sounding very fuddy-duddy) the overuse of the now ubiquitous and versatile f-word. It is not historically correct, not being used as a swear word until a century and a half later. It becomes really tedious. More importantly it demeans the character of Hogarth and one begins to lose empathy with him. Maybe Dear was losing interest in Hogarth when penning The Taste of the Town. Having got that off my chest, the casting of this play is unusually accurate to the period and the historical characters, and it good to see that the actors do closely resemble the real people they portray. Moreover, dialect coach Elspeth Morrison has worked to get accents accurate and spot on. So not only does Fielding have a Somerset accent and Bridget the maid a gentle Dublin accent, neither over-egged, but both Hogarth’s speak an accurate West London accent rather than a generic Cockney.

The latter is important in that it should chime with the Kingston audience as the plays are chock full of local references: Garrick at Hampton, Walpole at Strawberry Hill, the ferry at Twickenham and Hogarth’s house at Chiswick. As a child, Hogarth’s house was an afternoon’s stroll away, and when I first saw Hogarth’s engravings of eighteenth century London, I thought thankfully things are no longer like that. Now one wonders. Leaving that thought hanging, I’m off to have a gin … there’s a place in Chiswick that serves 180 different types. I wonder if they serve a A Kick in the Guts ?

Mark Aspen
September 2018

Photography by Manuel Harlan

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