This dazzling double bill about the life of painter William Hogarth brings the 18th century to life in all its bawdy and colourful glory, writes theatre critic John Clarke.
William Hogarth was a 18th-century painter and printmaker whose caustic, satirical and bawdy works, including A Harlot’s Progress and A Rake’s Progress are reflected in these two linked plays by Bafta-winning dramatist Nick Dear.
The first, The Art of Success, is a revival of a play first staged by the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford in 1986. A spiky and energetic Bryan Dick plays the young and talented Hogarth, making his way in a world of boozing toffs, lecherous lords and persuasive prostitutes. Blunt and foul-mouthed with a taste for the scatological he sketches a murderess, quarrels with the novelist-to-be Henry Fielding (Jack Derges) before losing his dignity and his clothes in a bawdy house.
It’s a rich and colourful era brought to life on the Rose’s large open stage by set designer Andrew D Edwards and video and projection designer Douglas O’Connell who, with the help of scenery moved around on wheels, recreate the sights, sounds and mayhem of 18th-century London.
As with many men, it’s the love of a good woman, in this case Hogarth’s wife Jane, played with dogged devotion and a strict moral tone by Ruby Bentall, that keeps him, if only just, on the straight and narrow. “Loving you is such a struggle,” she complains and it’s hard not to agree.
Other characters flit in and out, an over-the-top Queen Caroline portrayed with outrageous aplomb by Susannah Harker and the homicidal Sarah Sprackling (an intense and passionate performance by Jasmine Jones) who believes that in sketching her, Hogarth has stolen not only her likeness but her soul as well.
Happily, there’s then an interval – you might want to wander outside just for a breath of 21st-century life – before we return to an older, if not wiser, Hogarth in The Taste of the Town which is receiving its world premiere at the Rose.
Now living in the more sylvan surroundings of Chiswick, Hogarth is still married to Jane but has gone up in the world, having been appointed Serjeant Painter to the King. And it’s here that Keith Allen, as the elder version of the artist, takes the play by the scruff of the neck and proceeds to give a masterclass in characterisation, stage projection and comic timing.
Honoured but dissatisfied, “I used to be at the centre of things, now I’m a smudge on the margin,” he complains, he hopes to leave his mark with grand dramatic paintings such as Sigismunda which portrays his wife as the medieval heroine clutching a golden goblet containing the heart of her murdered husband.
But instead he meets with ridicule, especially from near neighbour Horace Walpole, who in a delightfully camped-up performance by Ian Hallard manages to outwit a drunken Hogarth.
He also verbally fences with his friend David Garrick – “more cod than codpiece” – who, in a masterful portrayal by Mark Umbers, rewrites Shakespeare, throws out compliments like confetti and offers an invincible spirit of self-belief.
Harker, now playing his wife Jane, has to perform an unenviable balancing act of pacifying Hogarth while comforting her mother Lady Thornhill (a very able Sylvestra Le Touzel), whose verbal duels with her son-in-law carry on even after her death.
Tightly-written and directed in contrast to the slightly looser The Art of Success the play is a triumph not only for Allen and the cast but also for The Rose, currently celebrating its 10th anniversary.
There are enough swear words and what are now politely referred to as “scenes of a sexual nature” to make it unsuitable for the young or the easily shocked. But what both plays do is to bring the 18th century to life in all its bawdy, colourful and exuberant richness.
Review by John Clarke
The double bill of Hogarth’s Progress – ‘The Art of Success’ and ‘The Taste of the Town’ – is at the Rose Theatre in Kingston until Sun 21 Oct. rosetheatrekingston.org