Never seen John Gay’s ballad opera The Beggar’s Opera, though have seen Brecht and Weill’s Threepenny Opera, on which it is based, a couple of times. Have been waiting patiently for a production of Britten’s 1948 adaptation to pop up again having missed a couple of past opportunities. So it seemed a good idea in the meantime to take in this version, co-produced by Kneehigh and the Liverpool Everyman/Playhouse in which writer Carl Grose, composer Charles Hazlewood and director Mike Shepherd have reimagined the story for a contemporary audience using an eclectic mix of musical genres.
And, by and large, it was a good idea, even if it was a little overstuffed with Kneehiggh’s usual bag of tricks. The John Gay original was written as an antidote to the ever more preposterous gods, monsters and love story Baroque Italian style operas filling London theatres. Often cobbled together from other works with divas insisting on their own favourite arias regardless of context, rambling on for hours and with daft plots, they were ripe for satire. Remember too that the early C18 was a golden age for political satire led by Hogarth, Swift and Pope in print. (In fact it was the latter two who first suggested the idea of TBO to Gay). C18 toff Britain was busy racking up debt, sticking it too Johnny Foreigner and getting rich on the proceeds of slavery, whilst all around absolute poverty was rife. Sound familiar?
Gay and the other writers of so called Augustan drama were also pushing back against the Restoration comedies and nasty she-tragedies of the previous decades, creating middle and lower class characters mired in a world of corruption. The aim was not necessarily to highlight the social and economic injustice meted out to the poor, there was still a strong Christian and moral tone of instruction to the works, but to vent the frustration of the mercantile “libertarian” class at the “conservative” aristocracy and its political sycophants. Gay’s particular target in The Beggar’s Opera was actually the divisive Whig prime minister Robert Walpole and specifically his involvement in bailing out the original investors in the South Sea Bubble.
The 69 songs, across 45 short scenes, originally were to be sung without musical accompaniment but Johann Christoph Pepusch was brought in at the last minute to create a score for the mix of largely Scottish and French folk melodies, chucking in popular broadsheet ballads, opera arias lifted straight from the like of Handel, church hymns and even an overture. The punters lapped it up and it spawned multiple imitations, (though this is the only ballad opera which is still performed), and influenced much of the comic opera and musical theatre which followed in the C19 and C20. I see that it enjoyed a lengthy revival at this very theatre in the 1920s.
Carl Grose has kept most of the main characters, the Peachums (Martin Hyder and Rina Fatania), daughter Polly (Angela Hardie), Lockit (Giles King) and daughter Lucy (Beverly Rudd), Filch (Georgia Frost) and, of course Macheath (Dominic Marsh), and the bones of the plot including a repurposed, and instructive, parody ending, though here Macheath is a contract killer tasked with bumping off the virtuous Mayor, (and his innocent mutt), to make way for Peachum. Charles Hazlewood has thrown in electro, grime, dubstep, noire, trip hop rhythms as well as some punk and ska, alongside snatches of Purcell, Handel and even Greensleeves (from the original), to foot-tapping effect. By and large it all hangs together and I can’t fault the cast for effort. The dance routines (courtesy of Etta Murfitt) are entertaining and there are some effective visual treats, not least of which is the titular dead dog in the suitcase. The on stage musicians, who also take on key parts, notably violinist Patrycja Kujawska as Widow Goodman, cannot be faulted.
But Michael Vale’s set, complete with scaffolding and slide, whilst initially impressive, at times becomes an obstacle course for the cast to negotiate and multiple costume changes only add to the complications. Adding in a Punch and Judy routine, assorted puppetry (marshalled by Sarah Wright)and other creative trickery ends up slowing down proceedings and interrupting the momentum in what is intended to be a high energy entertainment. Sometimes less is more, especially if the intention is to make some points about the iniquity of the contemporary political class. I know this kitchen sink, amateur circus look is a keynote of some of Kneehigh’s work but it does rather blunt the satirical intent.
Still I can’t pretend I didn’t laugh, or jig about a bit, and the whole thing is done in just over a couple of hours. There’s a few days left at the Lyric and then the production moves on to complete the tour in Exeter, Cheltenham, Bristol and Galway.
The more theatre I see, the more I am turning into an insufferably superior luvvie. “A play will always trump a film because it is organic, dynamic, viewed from multiple perspectives, energised by audience complicity, palpable, alive, more daring in terms of form and structure” and much other such guff.
However sometimes I have to accept that the cinematic trumps the theatrical and that is definitely the case for The Favourite. For only a couple of years earlier, writer Helen Edmundson, director Natalie Abrahami, the massed ranks of RSC creatives and a cast led by Romola Garai and Emma Cunniffe served up Queen Anne, a play that, like The Favourite, dramatises the relationship between Anne, Sarah Churchill and interloper Abigail Hill. Except that the play offered a much broader sweep of history, Anne’s accession, the War of the Spanish Succession in Europe between the Grand Alliance and the Spanish and French Catholic monarchies, the rise of the Duke of Marlborough, Sarah’s husband, as well as Lord Godolphin and Anne’s political interventions. It also focusses on the birth of the free press in England at the turn of the C18 and, specifically, the spread of satirical publications. All this in addition to the personal troika.
In contrast The Favourite, whilst referencing the political manoeuvrings between protectionist Whig and free-trade Tory, and the impact of the growing tax burden to finance the war on landowners, is firmly focussed on the relationship between the three principal women. Mark Gatiss gets a look in as Marlborough (Winston Churchill’s ancestor) but not much opportunity to show off. Same goes for James Smith as Godolphin. Both were Tories but they became ever more reliant on Junto Whigs to finance the war.
(As an side I personally continue to sh*t myself about the long term, and increasingly short term, effect of debt on this country. As it happens public debt to GDP ballooned in the years after William III first went cap in hand to the City spivs with the idea of issuing Government bonds. At the peak of the War of Spanish Succession it approached 200%. War tends to do that. Anyway now good old Blighty runs at around 90%, not too far away from our major developed economy neighbours. But when you add in private debt it gets closer to 300% of GDP. There are a bunch of countries with “higher” levels but this reflects their tax friendly approach to issuers of corporate debt. Our debt is built on the backs of consumers.
So for those Brits who now purport to prize “sovereignty at any price” I would venture we are already in more of a pickle than all the Euro economies you take a pop at. But that is not all. Our current account deficit currently runs at 5% or so. Comparable with the likes of Turkey and Argentina. This has to be financed by foreign investors, “the kindness of strangers” as the Governor of the BoE would have it. Who knows what might happen in the next few weeks and months but if we balls this up, sterling depreciation, imported inflation, capital flight and sale of assets is guaranteed. And there may be f*ck all the BoE and Government can do to protect us. Forget about your ten quid for a visa, roaming charges, lorry queues or medicine stockpiling. That’ll be the least of your worries).
Oops I’ve done it again. Back to the script. So Anne, a natural Tory, became increasingly less enamoured of the Junto dominated government, especially when she fell out with Sarah, and the non-Junto Whigs started to break bread with the Tories led by Robert Harley. Cue the terrific Nicholas Hoult for it is he that plays Harley, sumptuously powdered and bewigged, but still brutally Machiavellian. He intrigues with the ambitious Abigail, eventually marrying her to his ally Masham (a virile Joe Alwyn), with the Queen’s approval. Harley wins the political battle, last straw for Sarah, but the Whigs win the battle after Anne’s death when the Hanoverian line is established, the Jacobites are defeated and the Whig supremacy is ushered in. The new money trounces the old.
Anyway I suspect that once the mercurial director Yorgos Lanthimos, in 2009, got his mitts on Deborah Davies’s original script, first written twenty odd years ago, it was always likely that the political context was going to be downplayed. Mr Lanthimos went on to garner deserved critical acclaim for Dogtooth (my favourite of his until, er, this Favourite), The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer. For those that don’t know, these are not your run of the mill Hollywood blockbusters. So, in many ways, The Favourite it surprisingly in its near naturalism. It is beautifully shot courtesy of cinematographer Robbie Ryan, the costumes (Sandy Powell) and set decoration (Alice Felton) are, as you might expect, exceptional and the locations, mostly Hatfield House, also Hampton Court Palace and the Bodleian’s Divinity School, are all stunners. The soundtrack, without exception, is divine, though amongst all the Purcell, Handel, Vivaldi and Back (WF as well as JS) make sure to listen out for Anna Meredith’s rasping contribution from her string quartet Songs for the M8.
So it looks and sounds wonderful. A period drama with a twist of Peter Greenaway’s Draughtsman Contract. But it is the relationship between the three women that is Mr Lanthimos’s concern and, with a little embellishment and ornamentation, he constructs a drama that the Tourist thinks sheds more light on the workings of power than any dry “historically accurate” portrayal could do. It is a drama, so “historical accuracy” for all the pedants out there is meaningless in this context, and, in any event, history is simply what is left and what is found, and it always changing. I suspect what really winds these punters up is the functional lesbian love triangle but, without that there would be no drama. The power games between the three women seem to echo, and directly, influence the power games between politicians and Crown and State.
Queen Anne, (we never see husband George who was an arse by all accounts), famously lost all 17 of her children and left no heir, hence the invitation to the Germans, 26 years after the invitation to the Dutch. Protestant royal kids eh, never there when you need them. This, unsurprisingly, leaves her sad, needy, physically incapacitated and isolated. Hence her bunnies. And her cake. She has a friend from childhood, Sarah Churchill, but these two chums are beyond dysfunctional. Having opened the door to her, she, Sarah, is in turn is manipulated by impecunious upstart cousin Abigail Hill, who then steps in to manipulate the Queen, literally and emotionally. Except that she, the Queen, whilst vulnerable is also capable of manipulating both, and ultimately pulls rank.
There are external scenes, in the palace gardens, on horseback, to Parliament, but most of the action takes place indoors and specifically in the Queen’s bedchamber and the corridor outside. Genius. Adds to the damaging intensity and claustrophobia of the relationships. As does the roving camera. And the predominantly wide-lens shots. The dialogue is dynamic and contemporary, the humour broad and often incongruous, the tone ambivalent. Your sympathies will constantly oscillate between the characters.
It is probably a comedy, but not one of those “dark” or “black” comedies where you don’t laugh. There are hints of Restoration romp and barbed bitch-fest a la Les Liaisons Dangereuses but then the idiom is right here, right now. It might be a tragedy but who is the heroine? Historical drama? But no-one normally speaks or moves like this in the bog-standard drama. The Madness of King George filtered through an absurdist lens. Maybe, but then it isn’t that absurd. Parallels with the arch Whit Stillman’s Love and Friendship, or the recent ITV Vanity Fair. Yes, but with more filth and camp. Could another director have taken the scrip and budget and churned out a more than passable film. For sure but it wouldn’t be half as much fun or half as original.
All of this reflects Yorgos Lanthimos’s off-kilter, deadpan style but it was never going to work without the three leads stepping up and, crikey, they do. In any other filmic context Emma Stone’s opportunist Abigail would take your breath away. Then along comes Rachel Weisz’s cruel to be kind, then to be cruel, and then back again, Sarah. And then, in probably the least surprising acting triumph of all time, Olivia Colman comes along and chews them up with her Queen Anne. The way all three bring out the conflicts implicit, and explicit, in their relationships is, frankly delicious, but OC takes it to another level.
I have already intimated that IHMO the present shower of Parliamentary sh*te might as well be dissolved to be replaced by a matriarchy comprised of acting Dames. Judi Dench as PM, Maggie Smith as Chancellor, Helen Mirren as Foreign Secretary, Eileen Atkins as Home Secretary, Joan Plowright as Education Secretary, Patricia Routledge at Health, Harriet Walter Justice, Kristin Scott Thomas International Development, Julie Walters Work and Pensions. You get the idea.
Culture Secretary I hear you cry. Easy. Sarah Caroline Olivia Colman. Only a matter of time before she is be-Damed. And surely she could cheer us all up. Telly, film or, too rare, on stage (she was close enough to touch in Mosquitoes), how she manages to get so deep into the emotional core of the characters she has played, even in relatively “lightweight” roles, is astounding. Anyway she now seems to have cornered the market in screen Queens, as it were, and here she is simply magnificent. Whether vomiting up blue cheese, petulantly cutting short a recital, stroking her rabbits (no euphemism), freezing in Parliament, linguistically weaponising cunnilingus (yep that’s what I meant), weeping for her lost child, ecstatically responding to Abigail’s poultice (again no euphemism) or bullying some poor footman, she always convinces, even as we snigger.
I see The Favourite, and Olivia Colman, Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz, are all over t’internet as Oscar candidates. I haven’t seen many of the other films habitually mentioned bar Blackkklansman and Black Panther (note to self: get on to that Roma caper asap). I doubt they will get far. But just maybe Olivia Colman can do the business and the whole world can see how perfect she is. That would be nice.
Handel’s Messiah, Barbican Hall, 19th December 2018
Jacqueline Shave (violin/director), Sophie Bevan (soprano), Iestyn Davies (countertenor), Allen Clayton (tenor), Roderick Williams (baritone)
Christmas on the way. Full house at the Barbican. MSBD as wingman. Messiah. A quartet of outstanding soloists. The Britten Sinfonia Voices. The Britten Sinfonia. And the very wonderful Jacqueline Shave leading the band.
It is of course impossible not to delight in the Messiah. At least that is the received wisdom. Yet, like so much Handel, I was worried it might, well, go on a bit. For this my friends was amazingly the first ever time I had seen and heard a live performance, Which given its Baroque lineage, its status as a Christmas fixture and its frequency of performance, especially by amateur choirs, is something of a surprise even to me. I suspect its appeal to a certain sort of Englishman (and woman), of which there were plenty on show at this performance, explains part of my reticence. The type that stands for the Hallelujah chorus, showing up our shared sheepish enthusiasm for imagined tradition. (And look what a mess that has got us into). It might also be my fear (not too strong a word) of really large scale choral performance. You know, where it all just becomes and aural blur.
So I figured the best way to get over this likely unfounded prejudice was to see an appropriately scaled performance, from an orchestra, choir and soloists at the top of their game, and in the company of MSBD, whose enthusiasm and all round gracious affability knows no bounds.
Well I can report that divvying up the Christ story (with the lead actor written out as it happens) into three sections and loads of parts (I think 54 in total), arias, recitative and chorus, plus the overture and pastoral symphony instrumental, makes for a much lighter affair, with more contrast and texture, than I had expected. Of course you will already know that no doubt, but for the uninitiated, this HIP style of performance, on modern instruments, is definitely the way in. You are probably familiar with the big numbers, the aforementioned Hallelujah chorus (we are suckers for anything fugal), “I know that my redeemer liveth” for soprano, “The trumpet shall sound for bass” as well as the choruses “Surely he hath borne our grief”, “Worthy is the Lamb” and the final Amen with its OTT dramatic pause before the end. Yet to be fair to old GFH is is rammed with good tunes. Pretty much throughout.
GFH never had a problem finding good tunes. he just had a bit of a problem in stopping them. At least that is my limited experience of the operas. other oratorios and assorted vocal extracts I have heard. And it wasn’t just in the vocal music. Those organ concerti can grind on a bit. I prefer those works when the format keeps it short, sweet and long on variation. The Concerti Grossi, bits of the Latin music and some of the trio sonatas. But frankly the old boy churned out, and recycled, so much stuff that I reckon, like your man Vivaldi, it is impossible to really know where you are in any of it, so best to just let it flow.
Messiah benefits from the fact that GFH only had 24 days to turn it around. I don’t hold with all that “genius in direct group chat with God” theory of inspiration, though I can see why the original 700 strong audience at the Musick Hall in Dublin (there it is above), might have felt that way. Sometimes, whatever your skill, you are just on it. And he certainly was here. Though infamously his librettist, who sort of commissioned him, Charles Jennens, didn’t think that much of his score. Bit rich coming from a man whose text, cobbled together from bits of the St James’s Bible and Coverdale Salter, is the very definition of fruity and defiantly non-linear (though to be fair this gave GFH a chance to properly ham up his own music). Anyway the fact that GFH had to take the rich outpouring of ideas and get them down without overworking or extending them was to his, and ultimately our, advantage. And for once he didn’t, or couldn’t, nick tunes from other composers, as he was wont to do. No shame in doing that then as there isn’t now.
Of course Messiah is just an opera without sets or costumes. With a plot we likely know inside out. By 1742 GFH’s actual operas were out of fashion. The public who now turned up and paid to hear music couldn’t be doing with this expensive and drawn out entertainment. (My theory is that the royals and aristos who generally funded opera and similar such entertainments in the C17 were, like the rich have done since time immemorial, mostly just showing off and couldn’t be arsed to watch what they paid for). So the resourceful Handel yet again, a few decades late, simply nicked an idea from Italy, fitted his music to English and served it up to us Protestant Brits (and the Irish) under our then German ruler. Interesting that Jennens became GFH’s bessie and advocate, publishing all his later scores, as he originally opposed the Act of Settlement that brought the Hanoverian line to England.
And he didn’t just nick the idea of the oratorio from Italy. Some of the tunes here are lifted from Italian madrigals that he had previously written, which, together with Jenner’s eclectic libretto, explains why it doesn’t really feel that sacred. And that ultimately is its genius and what probably explains its enduring appeal.
I have said before that the Britten Sinfonia is on the way to being my favourite band, probably because of the repertoire they tackle but also because their ethos, no principal conductor or director, means they can’t. and won’t, get away with just dialling in a performance or grumpily going through the motions with a parachuted in conductor. I get the impression they choose who they work with, and what they work on. And if, as here under Jacqueline Shave, the leadership comes from one of their own, then so much the better. This means the energy they bring to performance, the direct connection with the audience and the texture they create through interpretation is second to none. Now having a professional choir of the calibre of the BS Voices under Eamonn Dougan has opened up even more opportunities.
Now GFH’s original manuscript score is for 2 trumpets, timpani, 2 oboes, 2 violins, viola, and basso continuo (cello, double bass, and harpsichord). The might have proved just a little too hair-shirt for the Barbican Hall so on this evening the BS sported the bassoon of Sarah Burnett, another cello alongside Catherine Dearnley, and another viola alongside Clare Finnimore, and a full 13 violins. Which is still, given the standard Baroque practice leaving later copyists to specify the appropriate instrumentation, as perfectly minimal a band as the work requires. With the 21 strong choir we were treated to absolute clarity with none of the blaring out using huge orchestras and choirs that started at the end of the C18 and continued through the C19. Apparently in 1857 at the Crystal Palace there was a performance with an orchestra 500 strong and a chorus of 2000. And that was not the record. Nuts.
For the bizarre thing is that the beauty of GFH’s invention lies in its restraint. His tunes are always pretty simple to understand, that is what makes them wonderful, and Messiah has a conveyor belt of terrific ideas. But GFH doesn’t feel the need to overdo with the orchestra, often surprisingly spare, and holding back, for example the trumpets and timpani until near the end. The music thus fits the text like a glove and the absence of a defining tonal scheme means that GFH can go where he will with the key to match the “emotion” in the words.
Having the soloists at either side of the stage, walking to the centre for their turns, was at first a little distracting but the payoff, each singer able to “tell”their part of the story and allowing us to focus solely on them and their voices, quickly became apparent. Now I am not smart enough to work out why, in choral works, any particular soloist is more convincing than another, it is a gut feeling, but normally there are one o0f two that stand out. Not here though. All four genuinely wowed. I remember Sophie Bevan from her performance in The Exterminating Angel. Here she had lifted time in the spotlight (not literally, this isn’t Broadway) but the was sublime. I could listen to Iestyn Davies’s countertenor all day, which trust me a few decades ago is not a phrase I thought I would ever write. He probably gets the best of the Messiah arias but even so he didn’t rest easy, ramping up the emotion. Like Mr Davies, I had heard Roderick Williams rich and dramatic baritone pretty recently, in the ENO War Requiem. Wonderful. And hearing the phrasing and virtuosity of Allen Clayton in this, rather than the recent LSO Spring Symphony, which I didn’t really get on with, was a joy.
So, I admit, I get it. Britten Sinfonia under Stephen Layton with Polyphony and two of these soloists now on order.
Flushed with success from his visit to Manchester the Tourist hopped on a train across the Peak District to the proud city of Sheffield, (where I see the Theatres will be staging a Rutherford and Sons next year ahead of a version at the NT, and will then attempt to stage The Life of Pi, which should be interesting), and then on to Nottingham.
An interesting exhibition at Nottingham Contemporary – Feminisms, Gender, Resistance – but the main aim of the visit was the Playhouse and The Madness of George III. Now I booked this on the assumption, as with the Death of a Salesman at the Royal Exchange, that this was as near to a sure-fire winner as it was possible to get in theatrical terms. Alan Bennett at his witty best, but armed here with a riveting biographical story, directed by the ebullient new(ish) Artistic Director at the Playhouse, Adam Penford, and with Mark Gatiss in the lead, and Adrian Scarborough as Dr Willis, in a uniformly excellent cast.
And sure-fire winner it turned out to be. Apparently it has become the biggest box-office hit in the Playhouse’s history. It was screened to millions (I may be exaggerating here) via the NT Live cinema programme and ensured a bunch of critics left their London mansions to deliver a slew of 4* and 5* reviews. The audience on the evening the Tourist attended plainly loved, explicit in the congratulations during the after-show discussions.
I saw the original NT production with Nigel Hawthorne as George back in 1991, the Apollo Theatre revival a few years ago with David Haig at his actorly best, and have seen the film version a fair few times. So you can probably tell I am a bit of a fan. I will assume that, since you are one of the very select band reading this, that you are too, so won’t bore you with plot or historical details. If you don’t I suggest you see the film tout suite.
So what was so good about this production? Well first off Adam Penford has cut out a handful of scenes. AB’s play is already, like most of his work, structured as a series of very short scenes in multiple locations. This guarantees momentum but, allied with AB’s constant urge not to leave a potential quip on the table (which is why it is a comedy after all), can mean the characters, other than the King, come across as a bit thinly sketched. Cutting scenes out might seem counter-intuitive but it does actually mean we become more focussed on the “tragedy” of the King’s breakdown, and then the jubilation of his apparent recovery. I was also more aware here of the King’s relationship with his retinue. The political machinations, Whig vs Tory, the plotting of the Prince Regent and his faction, took a bit more of a back seat.
George III’s 59 year rule saw not just the Regency crisis, but the “loss” of American, the union of GB and Ireland, wars in Europe and throughout the burgeoning Empire, rivalry with France, the Agricultural Revolution and the accumulation of capital to fuel the Industrial Revolution, a new way to finance the monarchy, constitutional change and scientific advances (which George was keenly interested in when he was on top form). Whilst AB’s play only incidentally touches many of these profound changes it does brilliantly capture the dichotomy between the public and private life of the monarchy and the metaphor of the King’s breakdown mirroring the political struggle catalysed by the American War of Independence.
The dynamism of the production was also very well served by Robert Jones’s ingenious set. The various locations were smartly rendered with a series of Georgian style duck-egg painted flats, on stage and suspended, which were moved into place with no interruption to the action at all. Richard Howell’s lighting design, Tom Gibbons’ sound and Lizzi Gee’s movement, as well as some blisteringly quick costume changes, all further contributed to the pace and period feel of the production (most memorably at the end of the first half). A theatre set to point up the theatricality which underpins royalty.
However, and perhaps unsurprisingly, it was the performance of Mark Gatiss that really made the difference. Adrian Scarborough’s Dr Willis, alarmingly forthright in his proto-psychiatric treatment of the King, (pointing up that he was just a man), in the second half, Debra Gillett’s devoted Queen Charlotte, Louise Jameson’s callous Dr Warren, Nicholas Bishop’s morose Pitt, Amanda Hadingue’s presumptuous Fox and Will Scolding’s nincompoop Prince Regent all caught the eye, but all eyes were on Mr Gatiss. As you might expect the comedy flowed easy for him: but better still was the way he caught the pathos of the king as he was plunged into a mania which he could not control but which he understood. “I am not going out of my mind, my mind is going out of me”. The production also doesn’t hold back from showing the physical pain that was inflicted on him by doctors who didn’t have a clue what they were doing. Mr Gattis’s detailing of the King’s speech, tics, convulsions and agonies is mesmerising. Adam Penford was keen to offer a more sympathetic, and contemporary reading, of the King’s mental illness and to avoid seeing his behaviour solely through the lens of humour. Thanks to Mark Gattis’s performance he certainly succeeded.
History play, political drama, comedy. tragedy? This production makes the case for all of these in a forthright way. Thank you Nottingham Playhouse. I’ll be back.
Hogarth’s Progress: The Art of Success and The Taste of the Town
Rose Theatre Kingston, 21st October 2018
South West London was a popular place for the cultural, liberal, metropolitan elite in the first half of the C18. It still is. Hogarth, Horace Walpole, David Garrick, Henry Fielding, Alexander Pope, Henrietta Howard (the King’s mistress no less), Lord Burlington, Richard Steele, Paul Whitehead, Lady Mary Montagu, John Beard, Kitty Clive, Peg Woffington, James Thomson, John Moody, GF Handel (for one summer), Stephen Duck, John Stuart, Thomas Twining, Augustin Heckel. Oh, and early on in the period, no less than the Queen herself, Anne, at Hampton Court, following in the footsteps of William and Mary. Royalty and the Thames is what made it desirable,
OK so I can’t pretend I had heard of all of these luminaries but some of the big names, Walpole, Garrick and Fielding, play a big part in Nick Dear’s brace of plays about one of the area’s most famous residents, Hogarth himself. The first play, The Art of Success, premiered at the RSC way back in 1986, with Michael Kitchen and Niamh Cusack starring (seen last year on this very stage in the marvellous adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels (My Brilliant Friend at the Rose Theatre Kingston review ****). This tells the story of Hogarth’s early years carousing his way through Georgian London with Henry Fielding and their mates, Frank and Oliver. The new, companion, piece, The Taste of the Town, revisits Hogarth, now in Chiswick, at the end of his life (1697-1764). His house is now supported by the Hogarth Trust, owned and run by LB Hounslow and can be visited most afternoons. Worth a peak especially if you take in he neo-Palladian beauty that is the recently refurbished Chiswick House just round the corner. And, once in your life, you have to see the flamboyant spectacle that is Strawberry Hill House. This is why interior designers are best avoided.
Now for those who aren’t familiar with William Hogarth, he was a painter, printmaker, social critic and cartoonist in the first half of the C18. This period saw a huge increase in the wealth of Britain, (in full union with Scotland from 1707), built on trade, specifically trade in people, specifically slavery. With this came the rise of the liberal Whigs who took power from the Tories in 1715 and drew their support from the new industrial and merchant classes. It was a period of vigorous political debate. At least it was if you were rich. If you were poor …. well you were still f*cked over as always. Anyway Hogarth and his mates were dead centre in this cultural maelstrom, specifically in criticism of the great and good. Journals, newspapers, pamphlets, clubs, all mushroomed. And these boys were bad to the bone.
Hogarth himself came from a less privileged background, enough to get an apprenticeship as an engraver, but precarious enough to see his teacher Dad have spels in the debtors prison. This is where his satirical edge was sharpened. His morality tale “comic strips”, such as A Harlot’s Progress and A Rake’s Progress, were dead popular at the time and have remained so ever since, and sort of defined the entire genre. Yet he was also a renowned painter, largely society portraiture that being the mode at the time, and the tension between his “popular” and his “high” art is one of the themes that Nick Dear explores in the plays.
Dear also doesn’t hold back on portraying the seedier side of Georgian life. The Art of Success kicks off with Hogarth (Bryan Dick), Fielding (Jack Derges), Frank (Ben Deery) and Oliver (Ian Hallard) lashed up after a meeting of the Beefsteak Club and contemplating their next move, which is going to involve sex for money I am afraid. There is a lot of this sort of thing going on in the first play set in the 1730s. Indeed Hogarth’s relationship with prostitute Louisa (Emma Cunniffe), and its discovery by his wife Jane (Ruby Bentall) forms a major part of the plot of this play, such as it is. Alongside his encounter with murderess Sarah Sprackling (Jasmine Jones) who was the subject of The Harlot’s Progress and who seeks to wrest control of her image back from Hogarth after he draws her in prison. This question of who “owns” a representation in art, the observer or the observed, is another central theme of the play.
In the hands of Antony Banks as director, alongside period costumes and a striking, if s;lightly unwieldy, set from Andrew D Edwards, some fine video work from Douglas O’Connell, lighting from James Whiteside, sound from Max Pappenheim and music from Olly Fox, scene after scene unfolds with distinctive verisimilitude. The Queen, Caroline of Brunswick (Susannah Harker complete with comedy German accent) gets a look in, and reveals herself ken to get inside Hogarth’s britches, as does Prime Minister Robert Walpole (Mark Umbers) who reveals himself keen to see a liaison between Sarah and Jane (it’s a long story). Walpole indeed cuts a deal with Hogarth to push through the copyright deal that WH craves to stop his work being ripped off. Yet, alongside Fielding he rails against the political censorship that Walpole introduced to the theatre, a process that persisted until 1968.
This personality parade though gives an inkling into the plays’ problems. The comedy smut becomes a little wary after a while and the crowbarring into the script of biographical and historical fact after fact leaves little room for any change of pace or tone. There is the vulgar, which is fun, or there is the art history lecture, which is a little less so, once you know what is coming. The repellent power of men over women in the Georgian booms out through both plays but to no great end, as the strands are never pulled together..
The second play with Hogarth now retired to Chiswick, and railing against rivals like Sir Joshua Reynolds feels even slighter in some ways. Hogarth is now played by Keith Allen. One word. Irascible. Perfect casting. Jane Hogarth, now played by Susannah Harker, puts up with his grumpiness and abuse, but is a little tired of the suburban life. Hogarth and his mother-in-law, Lady Thornhill, the majestic Sylvestra Le Touzel initially in full on Lady Bracknell mode, do little to disguise there dislike. Things perk up for Hogarth however when old chum, near neighbour and charming egoist David Garrick (Mark Umbers) comes to call and the two go on a road trip. Of sorts. On foot. Down the Thames. Drink intervenes and Hogarth swans off to visit another local celeb, the ostentatious Horace Walpole (Ian Hallard, who seems to be having a lot of fun) who has dissed Hogarth’s painting skills in his stab at classicism Sigismunda (which is. to be honest, pretty limp). They argue, they make up. More misadventure etc, etc.
It’s not that I didn’t appreciate the history lesson. I really did. It’s not that I wasn’t impressed by the acting, notably Bryan Dick, (who impressed in Great Apes and Two Noble Kinsmen recently on stage and as Joe Orton on the box), and Keith Allen, as the main event. And many of the scenes are, of themselves, striking and entertaining. It’s just that the plot, and the arguments it seeks to explore, seem to have been welded together from the events and the personae that are portrayed, and the bawdy and the pedagogic never quite gel.
There is a book, which we seem to have acquired, which you can find in most National Trust shops. Scenes From Georgian Life by Margaret Wiles. It is a collection of period caricatures and cartoons, including some from Hogarth. From the tamer end of his oeuvre for sure. We wouldn’t want to upset the gentle, middle classes. Nick Dear’s two sketch plays are muckier and cleverer but ultimately not that much more impactful.