Hogarth’s Progress, Rose Theatre

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by Simona Negretto

Nick Dear’s first visit to William Hogarth’s world took place in 1986 when The Art of Success premiered in Stratford-upon-Avon. Now, over thirty years later, he has decided to take a peek into his character’s life once more and to show us the final part of the artist’s existence in The Taste of The Town.

The two plays, directed by Antony Banks, can be seen either separately or as a double-bill under the title Hogarth’s Progress, though I recommend watching them together for a more complete experience.

Banks’ direction is bold and extremely articulate, and thanks to the superb work of Andrew D Edward – Set and Costume Designer, and Douglas O’Connell – Video and Projection Designer, the stage becomes a visually rich digital canvas that brings to mind the best of Peter Greenaway’s imaginings.

On a mere narrative level, The Art of Success tells the story of the young William Hogarth: he is angry, rebellious and full of desire – in short, he seems the average young, talented artist of any era. But more interestingly, the play reflects on the role of the arts, their controversial relationship with commerce and the complex connection between the artist and his subject. Duly modernised in its encounters with contemporary society – whereas the 1986 version used cameras, the 2018 one replaces those with smartphones and selfies – the play still works as bright satire of the art world.

Bryan Dick’s young William Hogarth is full of energy, ardent and highly enjoyable: a charming mix of unlikely rascal and astute, determined artist. The three female characters shine, too: Ruby Bentall’s cleverly naive Jane Hogarth, Jasmine Jones’ evilly honest Sarah Sprackling and Emma Cunniffe’s understanding Louisa. All deliver excellent performances showing the untold side of the story.

The old Hogarth is as reactionary and grumpy as the young one is passionate and riotous. The Taste of The Town shows the artist in his last days when, retired to Chiswick, he has become the obsessive champion of British supremacy – in the arts and elsewhere.
Less dazzling and lively than the first play, this new work excels in giving a more intimate portrait of the man with all his flaws, and these deeply emphasised by age.

Keith Allen’s performance as the old, ill-tempered, stubborn and much-ridiculed William Hogarth is a joy to watch, but his meeting with Horace Walpole – played by an outstanding and inspired Ian Hallard – is the high point of the production. The scene in which the rivalry between that exquisite fop and well-known arbiter of taste, Walpole, and the rough and irascible artist is temporarily set aside in the name of mutual grief at the loss of their dogs is a stroke of pure genius. Superbly crafted too are the sharp sections of dialogue between Hogarth and Lady Thornhill, played magnificently by Sylvestra Le Touzel.

Hogarth’s Progress is an ambitious production that, although not entirely flawless, alternates moments of great fun with thought-provoking, timeless questions on the arts, life and politics, and effortlessly captivates the audience.

Hogarth’s Progress runs through 21 October.

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