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THIS double bill from Nick Dear is a bawdy romp — a delve into the seething underbelly of 18th-century London, with its buxom wenches and pox-ridden punters.
Here too are venal politicians, brothel keepers, narcissist actors and devoted servants and at the centre artist William Hogarth, who masks self-doubt in braggadocio, craving critics’ approval, and creating a breathtaking legacy.
Dispensing with cliches, the two plays are a nuanced examination of art, its place in people’s hearts and rich men’s wallets. Hogarth’s work remains as a testament to his great desire that his work should last. He was determined that the Old Masters shouldn’t be the only game in town. “What is art?” he spits. “Is it property or communication? Is it to be owned — or understood?”
In the first of the double, The Art of Success, the young artist is played by Bryan Dick in a performance packed with energy and naturalism. For all Hogarth’s certainty about his own genius, Dick steers clear of full-on pomposity or petulance.
The dichotomy between his relationships with whore Louisa (Emma Cunliffe, utterly believable) and his wife Jane (Ruby Bentall, strong and delicate) delivers contemporary resonances. Who is the stronger woman, the one who has set a price on herself, or she who struggles to define her value in a changing world?
Misogyny is barely muzzled throughout. Hogarth’s treatment of murderer Sarah Sprackling reveals his commercial ambition. Sketching the desperate woman (a spellbinding Jasmine Jones) in her Newgate cell, intent on flogging her likeness to the crowds who will witness her hanging, Hogarth is no longer the cheeky lad nor the dutiful husband but a chancer counting the shillings to come.
The Sprackling story is a handy device, carrying the drama which might seem aimless without it. And there are chilling moments, as when brothel keeper Elizabeth Needham (Sylvestra Le Touzel), taking orders from boozed-up gentlemen with all the aplomb of a maitre d’ at the Savoy, boasts that one of her prostitutes is a virgin — “an infant.”
The Taste of the Town catches up with the Hogarths later in life, with Keith Allen perfectly cast as the older painter in the grip of misanthropy. The plot sees him out to confront Horace Walpole, who’d lambasted Hogarth’s last work, Sigismunda.
The artist never finished the piece, making changes which satisfied no-one, least of all himself. It’s not how we remember him, of course. There are the cartoons and the portraits which provide a stronger sense of the sheer invention and chutzpah of the man which this “progress” somewhat lacks.
Runs until October 21, box office rosetheatrekingston.org
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