A CurtainUp London Review
Playwright Nick Dear found the subject of William Hogarth so interesting that he wrote The Art of Success about him in 1986 and returned to the subject 30 years later in The Taste of the Town.
Hogarth is most famous today as the author of political cartoons satirising London life in the 18th century. I remember at university, a lecturer telling us about Picasso's painting "Guernica" which Picasso had painted to show the cruelty of the fascist regime in Spain in the Spanish Civil War when the fascists bombed the town. In the 1960s, the Spanish government led by the fascist General Franco asked the Museum of Modern Art in New York to return the painting because it represented the conflict in Spain that was the Spanish Civil War. My lecturer's point was that the painting itself was ambiguous and could represent the opposite of the artist's intention and his motivation for painting it.
There is no such ambiguity about Hogarth's etchings of gin soaked London. There is no way that these drawings could be interpreted as depicting salubrious London life. Nick Dear's first play The Art of Success shows the young, newly married Hogarth (Bryan Dick) about 1730 and his friend Henry Fielding, the author and playwright (Jack Derges). His contacts are representative of the sordid aristocracy, a pox ridden viscount called only Oliver (Ian Hallard) and members of the oldest profession, Louisa (Emma Cunniffe) and a brothel keeper Mrs Elizabeth Needham (Sylvestra Le Touzel). Ruby Bentall plays Hogarth's sweet wife Jane who was the daughter of the first member of the Royal Academy, the painter Sir James Thornhill and William Hogarth's master, and with whom Hogarth eloped.
Much of this story revolves around Hogarth sketching a convicted murderess, Sarah Sprackling (Jasmine Jones) in Newgate Gaol, the night before her execution by hanging. Mark Umbers plays Robert Walpole the "de facto Prime Minister" who is resented for his shameless promotion of his relatives into well paid positions. There are themes in The Art of Success which look at the relative power of women contrasting the lot of Sarah Sprackling who wants to reclaim her portrait, Jane the sheltered wife and Louisa the prostitute that Hogarth visits.
I liked Andrew D Edwards's designs with the huge canvasses filling, yes filling, the Rose's expansively wide set and projected effects like snow falling. The costumes too are beautiful and lavish when called for with horsehair wigs for the men. The recreation onstage of Jane and a romp with some partially clothed men is a lasting image of a Hogarth etching coming to life.
Director Anthony Banks gets good performances from his cast. I especially liked Jasmine Jones idiosyncratic murderess who so desperately wanted that drawing as if it had captured her soul. Bryan Dick is likable as the young William who finds himself unable to pay the prostitute and cast out in Covent Garden without a stitch to wear. We understand how Hogarth was able to draw and paint such accurate pictures of London low life and what social conditions prompted his stinging satire. We hear the 1749 music of Handel for the Royal Fireworks on the Royal Barge procession.
In the second play The Taste of the Town which I saw on an all day double bill, we meet a more mature William Hogarth (Keith Allen), now living in Chiswick. There is a remarkable likeness between Keith Allen and Hogarth's self portrait of 1745 "The Painter and His Pug" which is in the Tate Gallery in London. The similarity is uncanny. Brilliant casting! There are many laughs when we learn that Hogarth's dog was called Trump in real life. Hogarth's wife Jane is now played by Susannah Harker and her mother the magnificent Lady Thornhill (Sylvestra Le Touzel) features as a constant upper class thorn in Hogarth's side.
The actor David Garrick (Mark Umbers) is a constant visitor to the Hogarth family in Chiswick. He says the town is a "cauldron of envy, greed and malevolent gossip" but Lady Thornhill wants to go shopping. The debate is about the relative merits of British and European artists and for Hogarth his nemesis is the portraitist Joshua Reynolds. Jane Hogarth runs into two of the original "blue stockings" Mrs Ryott and Mrs Colquhoun (Ruby Bentall and Emma Cunniffe) in a tea room in town and Garrick gives us his exaggerated style of acting in a giggleworthy scene from the Scottish play.
The scene I liked best was Hogarth gate crashing Horace Walpole (a very refined, powdered face Ian Hallard) 's house at Strawberry Hill with its beautiful vaulted ceiling on stage. Horace Walpole is such a refined aesthete but he is also very clever. Having heard about the loss of Trump and what it meant to Hogarth, he plays the empathy card by describing his own great loss of a lovable dog and turns Hogarth's enmity into a common bond of canine love and loss. "They call me 'the prime minister of taste,' " says Walpole indulgently. There are plenty of topographical jokes about Teddington, Twickenham and Chiswick for the residents of Kingston, the Rose Theatre, here celebrating its first ten years.
If I have a misgiving about the combination of the plays in Hogarth's Progress, it is in the way in which the two plays interact. Hogarth in The Taste of the Town is portrayed as Lady Thornhill must have viewed him: from the lower classes, foul mouthed and her blow below the belt of not having "given her daughter any children." I found Bryan Dick's Hogarth a gentler sort and with more adjectives at his disposal than the "f" one. While The Taste of the Town has so much to laugh at, it is a lighter comedy about the king's sergeant-painter who didn't forget his origins and raised money and support for the Foundling Hospital.
Both plays are stuffed full with references to art, its sponsorship and creation to provide a study. I went today to look at the "Marriage a la Mode" paintings by Hogarth in the National Gallery a marriage arranged between a pox ridden son of a bankrupt earl and the daughter of a wealthy merchant who has an affair with a slippery lawyer. This series is unusual in that it is the upper classes who are stigmatised by Hogarth here and I sensed the full meaning of his satire. And I understood why his portraits are not so well regarded.
Bravo to the Rose for a satisfying and stimulating day of eighteenth century set drama!
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Written by Nick Dear
Directed by Anthony Banks
Starring: Keith Allen, Ruby Bentall, Emma Cunniffe, Ben Deery, Jack Derges, Bryan Dick, Ian Hallard, Susannah Harker, Jasmine Jones, Sylvestra Le Touzel, Mark Umbers
Set and Costume Design: Andrew D Edwards
Sound Design: Max Pappenheim
Music: Olly Fox
Fight Directors: Rachel Bown-Williams and Ruth Cooper-Brown of RC-Annie Ltd
Lighting Design: James Whiteside
Video and Projection Designer: Douglas O'Connell
Assistant Director: Ally Manson
Running time: Each play around Two Hours 30 minutes with an interval
Box Office: 020 8174 0090
Booking to 21st October 2018
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 29th September 2018 performances at the Rose Theatre, 24-26 High St, Kingston upon Thames KT1 1HL (Rail: Kingston)
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