Hogarth’s Progress (Nick Dear) Back

‘You can’t distinguish between pencil lines and people,’ an articulate murderess shouts at Hogarth in Newgate. Nick Dear’s double bill Hogarth’s Progress is intent on blurring the lines between Hogarth’s works, in particular his familiar Rake’s Progress and Marriage A-la-Mode, and Hogarth’s professional and private life in Georgian England. The opening scene of The Art of Success, in which Hogarth and his tipsy friends pee out of windows and wave sheep’s gut condoms at heart-of-gold prostitutes, suggests Dear has taken Hogarth’s 1733 A Midnight Modern Conversation as a realistic representation not just of Hogarthian London, but of Hogarth himself. This is a problematic interpretation.

The double bill comprises Dear’s The Art of Success (first produced by the RSC in 1986) and the premiere of his newly written sequel, The Taste of The Town. The Olivier-Award-winning The Art of Success is a lively romp set on one day in the life of the young Hogarth on his way up: newly married, newly successful, but still anxiously devising ways to make a profit in a time when his engravings are routinely pirated. It is set variously in taverns, a Pleasure Garden, the Hogarths’ marital bedroom and Newgate gaol. It is not all gin-drinking and whoring, however. Dear wants us to understand the more serious issues Hogarth was up against as a painter and engraver: finding his works pirated, Hogarth fights for new legislation that will protect the engraver’s intellectual property. BSECS members will chuckle knowingly at this foreshadowing of Hogarth’s Law, as the 1735 Act for the Encouragement of Designing, Engraving, Etching &c. became known. Its dramatic potential, however, is less obvious and Dear is forced to insert a great deal of exposition to bring the audience up to speed.

Dear compresses a great deal of information and action into a single night and day. The young William Hogarth, played by Brian Dick, with just the right amount of the ‘sharp-elbowed, awkward-angled peg,’ as Jenny Uglow once described him, is first seen tippling with his friends. That same night, taking a turn in the Pleasure Gardens, he comes across his adored young wife Jane (Ruby Bentall) offering succour to a lone prostitute, Louisa (Emma Cunniffe). Bentall gives a colourful presentation of Jane as a prim newly wed with a Molly Bloom-like fantasy life. Later the same evening, her secret erotic fantasies are interrupted, first by the appearance of a condemned murderess Sarah Sprackling and then by the prime minister, Robert Walpole, both of whom seem to have had unimpeded access to her bedroom and are desperate, for different reasons, to get their hands on Hogarth.

What gets lost in this farcical representation is Hogarth the inspired and ambitious young painter, who once claimed that even as an apprentice, ‘the painting of St Pauls and gree[n]wich hospital … were during this time’ running in his head. For dramatic purposes, he is given a decided animus towards Sir James Thornhill, sergeant-painter to the King, his mentor and now father-in-law. In reality he admired and loved him.

With only ten characters in The Art of Success and thirteen in The Taste of the Town, the excellent cast of actors throw themselves enthusiastically into a script which is at times strained. They are required to deliver lines which range from anachronistic colloquialism (‘You going to mess me about?’) through awkward signposting (‘What is the verdict on the new King?), to the occasional self-conscious ‘lack-a-day’. Most of the female characters are required to deliver ironic loud laughs, while the males depict stages of drunken-and-disorderliness.

Some scenes are entertaining but add little to the plot: two characters on the shores of the Thames happen upon the Royal Barge sailing by just as Handel’s Water Music is being played, and in the second play, the admirable Mark Umbers as David Garrick, has to enact for the benefit of a doubting Thomas his hammy death of Macbeth. At points like this, we are perilously close to Blackadder.

The Taste of the Town, written and indeed set thirty years later, is a more reflective affair. Hogarth is now living in his gracious house in Chiswick and the play follows him and David Garrick as they take a long walk through the water-meadows of the Thames to Twickenham and Horace Walpole’s spectacular villa, Strawberry Hill. Visually it is sumptuous, thanks to the set designer Andrew Edwards, the video and projection designer, Douglas O’Connell and James Whiteside’s lighting, the team who had provided original and effective staging to the first play. A giant screen suggests a summer afternoon in the garden behind Hogarth’s house. Then rural countryside quietly rolls by until we reach Strawberry Hill, evoked by an image of one of Walpole’s spectacular vaulted ceilings. These provide a backdrop to more intimate, quieter scenes of Hogarth at the end of his life.

Hogarth himself, of course, was far from quiet, becoming notoriously cantankerous in age. Keith Allen clearly relishes playing the belligerent, foul-mouthed figure. From a robustly sweary younger man, he now seems to have developed uncontrollable coprolalia, like a sort of aged Mozart. There is an unbridgeable contrast between his language and that of the other characters, between his ‘fuckin’ bollocks’ and their ‘lack-a-days’. How would he have risen so high in his professional career, one wonders, if he were such a loose-tongued cannon?

Meanwhile Dear introduces some much-needed gender politics. The mature Jane Hogarth, played with dignity and pathos by Susannah Harker, takes her mother to a ‘tea-shop’ (had the successful grocer’s Fortnum and Mason already set up tea rooms in the 1760s?). Here Jane encounters a couple of light-hearted blue-stockings, who encourage her to adopt a new liberated feminism. The star of this scene, however – indeed the star of this second play – is Sylvestra Le Touzel’s witty and eloquent widowed Lady Thornhill. A prototype of Lady Bracknell, she is given to articulating outrageously snobbish opinions with classy confidence. She seems particularly preoccupied with her daughter’s childlessness (one of the motifs running through both plays is Hogarth’s fear of castration), although you’d imagine she would be reconciled to the fact now that Jane Hogarth is presumably past childbearing.

One scene really works because it is given time to breathe: the one at Strawberry Hill. Horace Walpole (Ian Hallard), albeit preposterously camp, sits politely listening to Hogarth’s furious rant about Walpole’s criticism of his latest painting, Sigismunda. Keith Allen gets the chance here to add a new dimension to Hogarth, briefly revealing a more touching side. It turns out he is grieving for his dead pug, while Walpole too mourns a dead pet. For a happy moment the unlikely couple find something in common. Regrettably for us, Hogarth named his dog Trump – cue a knowing wink to the audience – so the moment of tenderness is soon lost.

Then farce takes over. Hogarth gets beaten up on the long walk home, returning to find his mother-in-law has unexpectedly died that afternoon and been laid out by the servants, no doubt with an eye to comic potential, in Hogarth’s painting studio. Hogarth has a stroke which transforms him from belligerence to belated sweetness. Death has a similar effect on Lady Thornhill, who returns as a forgiving ghost, taking tea and cream with her son-in-law. The play ends as they sit in the afternoon sun awaiting the arrival of orphans from the Foundling Hospital, whose merry voices are heard in the gardens.

Nick Dear is a greatly respected screenwriter and playwright. His adaptation of Persuasion (1995) has never been bettered. In Hogarth’s Progress, however, his insistence that Hogarth the man can be located in his art, living an unthinkingly Hogarthian life, gives insufficient attention to Hogarth’s brilliant powers of observation and sharp satire.

The Art of Success and The Taste of the Town, both written by Nick Dear and directed by Anthony Banks, are at the Rose Theatre, Kingston until 21st October 2018. They can be viewed as a double bill, Hogarth’s Progress, on select dates.