Hogarth’s Progress at the Rose Kingston review ***

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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.

The Two Noble Kinsman at the Globe Theatre review ****

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The Two Noble Kinsman

Globe Theatre, 12th June 2018

I am not too keen on the Globe. Actually that is putting it mildly. I really don’t like it. For the simple reason that it is so bloody uncomfortable. I know that is the point. Sam Wanamaker’s vision of a re-creation of Shakespeare’s original entertainment house would hardly work with plush seats and perfect sight-lines but it does’t stop my bum from numbing, my back from aching, my knees from cracking and my attention from being distracted by the shuffling of the even more unfortunate folk in the Yard and the roar of the planes overhead. Which means, however good the production, and however atmospheric the mood created, (and it certainly can be atmospheric), I am normally too unsettled to totally commit. My fault for being a fat, whingeing curmudgeon.

There are times though when I get tempted and this was one of them. I had never see “tragicomedy/romance/pastoral” The Two Noble Kinsmen before and the prospect of Barrie Rutter directing, and taking a scalpel to the preposterously over-written text, was just too inviting. I also reasoned, correctly, that it wouldn’t be packed to the rafters given this was not Shakespeare’s finest hour. TTNK was written in conjunction with John Fletcher, first performed in 1613/14 and first published in 1634, so it didn’t appear in Heminges and Condell’s First Folio. Probably because they didn’t have a decent text to hand and they didn’t deem it worthy given the co-authorship. Shame. Maybe then it wouldn’t get such a bad press, along wth Pericles, and maybe then we would also have a version of the lost Cardenio (based on the Don Quixote legend) to savour.

The mash up of Chaucer’s Kings Tale, via Greek tragedy, latin epic, English masque, and Italian romance is daft, no doubt about that, but no more so than some of Big Will’s other “comedies”. Well maybe not, but the tale of firm friends, Palamon, (who also appears briefly in Johnson’s Bartholomew Fair), and Arcite, fighting over the object of their affection, Emilia, really does have its moments. By this time Will S was no longer a sure-fire hit-maker and Fletcher may well have been drafted in to stop him going all Tempest-y introspective again. Fletcher’s contribution brings the knockabout comedy stemming from the infatuation of the (unnamed) Jailer’s daughter for Palamon and the Midsummer Night’s Dream style rustics entertainment. Indeed there is plenty that is lifted from the Dream, unsurprising given that was also inspired by A Knights Tale: the regal presence of Theseus and Hippolyta, lovers who have made less than ideal choices and another trip to that Athenian wood. Shakespeare’s verse had by now become quite knotty in parts so, in some way, the recognisable comedy makes it easier to digest and this is what Mr Rutter alights on as he sharpens up the text to the benefit of the plot.

Post prologue, we begin with the three mourning Queens, (here played by Sue Devaney, Melissa James and Kat Rose-Martin), who have come to Athens to plead to Theseus (Jude Akuwudike) and Hippolyta (Moyo Akande) to help avenge the deaths of their husbands at the hands of King Creon of Thebes (who won’t give them a proper burial – he has form on that front). Theseus in Dream always strikes me as just a way of getting from A to B plot wise, (though obviously the actor gets compensated in the form of altar ego Oberon), but here there was a bit more opportunity for Jude Akuwidike to actually direct proceedings which he seized admirably. Moyo Akande was an imperious Hippolyta helped by her gorgeous costumes, (Jessica Worrall’s designs here were marvellous  and all credit to the makers – Sarah Campbell, Rose Chandler, Charles Hanrahan, Aislinn Luton, Phil Reynolds and Janie Stephenson). I don’t know if the height difference between Moyo Akande and Ellora Torchia as Emilia, her fictional sister, is deliberate or just an outcome but it does provide, as with the casting of Francesca Mills as the Jailer’s Daughter, and that between the three Queens, further texture, (if not the deliberate, slightly sour, humour of Hermia and Helena’s confrontation in Dream).

Anyway Theseus goes to war and Creon’s nephews, Palamon and Arcite,  are captured. I read a review which said Paul Stocker and Bryan Dick, (last seen by me in a state of inspired confusion in Great Apes at the Arcola), played the firm friends like a couple of gap year hooray-henry’s, which is wittily accurate. That is not to downplay their performances, just that when the opportunity to ham it up a bit was presented, as when they first clap eyes on Emilia through the cell window, or when they meet again in the wood to resume the bickering, they grab it with both hands. Very funny.

Arcite is set free, banished but literally wrestles his way into a position as Emila’s bodyguard, as you do. Palamon too is sprung from clinkey but this time with the help of the Jailer’s Daughter who has fallen for him. Palamon and Arcite decide to fight it out for the hand of Emilia. The Jailer’s Daughter goes bonkers, Ophelia-like. The yokels, led by the Quince-like Schoolmaster (Jos Vantyler) put on their performance, “aided” by the mad woman, and here decked out in full Green Man, morris dancing English pastoral mode. With baboon. Apparently not the only play of the era that called for this particular primate. The official tournament between the two lads, decreed by Theseus, follows, with everyone asking the Gods to intervene, which, via various twists of fate, they do.

As ever in Shakespeare love at first sight is the standard modus operandi, (unless, of course it isn’t as in Much Ado). In TTNK though the love plots are unadorned, no mistaken identities, (well OK maybe one utterly transparent one), servants intervening or pretty sonnets. We end with two marriages but they are peremptory. Emilia is indifferent to the point of blase about which man she gets and the Jailer’s Daughter rewards the persistence, and dodgy impression, of the Wooer (here Jon Trenchard) after the Doctor’s unusual prescription.

All in all TTNK has the air of a partially successful comeback album. It is surprising just how good it is, in the right directorial hands, and a lot of the magic is still there, the band never having it lost it, but it is a little too indulgent, the main songwriter is a bit too preoccupied, and may just be mocking his own legacy, it is a bit too loose and you wouldn’t want to listen to it as often as the “classic albums”. It even has a subtle callback to the early years (big Will’s first ever pressing, Two Gentleman of Verona). Not quite done just for the money but with a strong sense of “take it or leave it”.

Barrie Rutter, very wisely, seeks to play up the comedy and dial down any tragedy. Jacobean comedy by now had become a little more sophisticated when compared to WS’s earlier comedies which, in the main exchanges between the “courtly” posher characters, encourages a more knowing air. This does mean that by the time we get to the end we don’t really care about the death of Arcite. It also places a little less weight on the gay sub-text of Palamon and Arcite’s friendship and when Emilia is graphically remembering her friend Favina. The two male characters, like Demetrius and Lysander in Dream are pretty similar though here the performances and build of our two created some distinction. The exchanges between Emilia and Hippolyta and Hippolyta and Theseus are similarly “flat”.

All this means that the undoubted star of the show is the Jailer’s Daughter who has plenty of opportunity to shine and shine she does here. Francesca Mills is a wonderful actress and this performance makes a strong case for adding the Jailer’s Daughter to the list of “rounded” comic A-listers in Shakespeare’s roster. OK so maybe not up there with Falstaff and Malvolio but the equal of Bottom surely. Ms Mills has natural comic timing, amazing energy and was able to convey the Daughter’s “love-sickness” convincingly and sympathetically. Her diction, through the perfectly judged “northern” accent was natural and clear, and she conveyed real passion, not the sometimes rather pathetic attachment of other Shakespeare women.

Mr Rutter has ensured that music plays a big part in this production enlisting the skills of genius folk composer Eliza Carthy, choreographer Ewan Wardrop and a band led by Andy Moore who get properly involved. He has also cast Matt Henry as Pirithous, Theseus’s bosom buddy, who is, by trade, a scion of musical theatre and it shows, as he provides the backbone to key musical interludes. The final ensemble set piece is properly, joyously, foot-tapping to the point where I forgot my aches and pains and left the Globe smiling.

Which, I can assure you, doesn’t always happen.

 

Great Apes at the Arcola Theatre review ****

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Great Apes

Arcola Theatre, 31st March 2018

I sort of lost track with Will Self the author after The Book of Dave. His sprawling, satirical fantasies with a lot of big words, unreliable narratives and narrators, drugs, mental dislocation, is never short of imagination and ideas, but aren’t always that easy, or pleasurable, to read. He is very clever and very funny, and he knows it, and really likes to show it. His influences are many, and obvious, Ballard, Burroughs, Heller, and then back through Kafka, Joyce, Voltaire and Swift. I gather he too has given up on the novel, all of them, not just his.

I did enjoy Great Apes however and its successor How the Dead Live. Our protagonist, artist Simon Dykes (Simon/simian geddit), whose prime artistic concern is, surprise, surprise, perspective, wakes up after a bender to find his girlfriend, Sarah, is a chimpanzee. And so is everybody else. His human “delusion” means he is taken in by psychiatrist Zack Busner, Will Self’s stock character, here an alpha male chimp. From this transparent inversion Self shines a light on human, and chimpanzee behaviours, we’re not so different, and on the nature of mental illness and reality. Because the satire is so primitive, as it were, and has been done to death in those wretched Planet of the Apes films, Self has to concentrate his powers on the narrative and the characters in a way that sometimes escapes him in the other novels. By colliding chimpanzee and human society and culture, Self sheds light on our own behaviours, fears and dysfunctions. It is also adroitly pokes fun at our own human exceptionalism. London, drugs, mental illness, “false” narratives are all explored, as you would expect, but there also some affecting exploration of relationships, which you don’t really expect from the lugubrious Mr Self.

In short its is clever yes, but with a purpose, and it has a proper plot. How then to put it on stage. Well first break it down into the key scenes. Mr Self’s detailed imagining of this alternative society has to run alongside the story of Simon’s journey from human “reality” through “delusion” and eventually to explanation, and Dr Busner’s rise and fall. To get it on to the Arcola stage needed some perspicacious work from adapter Patrick Marmion, which we have. It also needed the creative team of director Oscar Pearce, designer Sarah Beaton, lighting designer Matt Haskins, sound designer Dan Balfour, movement director Jonnie Riordan, costume supervisor Kate Hemstock and the puppetry team of Tom Espiner and Mala Kirkman-Richards, to combine to reveal enough to allow our imaginations to do the rest. In this they succeeded, a remarkable achievement given limitations of space and budget.

Perhaps the most important technical contribution however came from chimpanzee physicality and vocalisation consultant Peter Elliott. Now I will stake a wild guess that there aren’t too many people with that particular job title. His bio shows that he has worked on a number of major films involving primates, real and imagined, and, most remarkably, it says he became the first ever person to integrate with the colony of chimps at the University of Oklahoma.

I am also guessing the cast has down too much auditioning for primate work in the past. The way they combined voice, body and the simple props, benches, ladders and specialised crutches, (not sure if they have a special name), to simulate chimpanzee movement, sound and behaviour, was really impressive. Whilst Bryan Dick playing Simon and Ruth Lass playing Dr Zack, that’s right, in a piece of inspired casting we had a woman playing the alpha male here just to mess up our heads a bit more, the other five actors doubled up, or more. Yep they had to take on the character of not just one but several different chimpanzees. I was particularly struck by the performance of Ruth Everett as Busner’s assistant Jane Bowen, artist Tabitha Buckfast and Eve Knight, a film-maker.

Now I will admit with so much to pack in there were times when ambition overreached execution. Some of the plot had to be chivvied along especially towards the end. To have covered everything in the book would have been technically and dramatically impossible, and some of the intelligent subtleties and artistic allusion of the book gets a bit lost along the way.

Still you will end the evening definitely entertained, in awe of the technical achievement and with plenty to think about even if you may not entirely connect to the characters. Then again they’re chimps aren’t they? How would you connect to them? They’re animals aren’t they? They’re not as special as us are they what with out technology, language and civilisation?