Writer: Nick Dear
Director: Anthony Banks
Reviewer: Stephen Bates
Nick Dear’s 1986 play, The Art of Success, reflecting on the early life of the 18th Century artist William Hogarth, was first staged by the Royal Shakespeare Company. It earned an Olivier Award nomination and a transfer to New York. The play is revived here as the first half of a double bill with the World Premiere of its sequel, The Taste of the Town.
Bryan Dick’s Hogarth could just as well be a painter of the house decorating kind as an artist; he is a cheeky Cockney wide boy who is always an outsider among the smart set of London. He divides his time between his prudish wife Jane (Ruby Bentall) and the prostitute Louisa (Emma Cunniffe), the former satisfying his social climbing ambitions, the latter his carnal desires. His art reflects a society in which lust and depravity are masked by superficial propriety, the subjects of his sketches, painting and engravings often being whores and convicted murderers.
Dear gives us a ribald comedy interwoven with debates on artistic themes – beauty versus ugly reality, integrity versus commerce, freedom of expression versus censorship. Hogarth is acquainted with Sir Robert Walpole (a grotesquely seedy Mark Umbers), a corrupt Prime Minister who kisses more than hands with his Queen (Susannah Harker). Walpole’s proposed copyright legislation could help to fill the pockets of Walpole, whose work is being copied freely, but it is accompanied by the introduction of the censorship laws that were to become a blight on British theatre for more than two centuries. This brings great displeasure to another of Walpole’s acquaintances, playwright and budding revolutionary Henry Fielding (Jack Derges), who decides that it is time for him to turn to writing novels.
The play takes us through a series of scrapes that Walpole’s mingling with society’s lower ranks takes him into. Jasmine Jones is splendidly earthy as Sarah Sprackling, a condemned woman who Walpole is commissioned to sketch in Newgate Prison. The artist looks for profit from selling prints after her execution, but Sarah dislikes his work and, insisting that a truthful image should remain after her death, she seeks to destroy it.
The timing of the comedy in Anthony Banks’ lively and free-flowing production is superb. Andrew D Edwards’ ingenious set designs help the staging greatly, using images projected onto a large screen behind an open thrust stage, which has a wide ramp descending into the audience. Two upper walkways convey the feel of an over-built inner city area, populated by the rich, the poor and the destitute.
An amusing twist near the end adds a modern slant on artistic imagery that could not have been part of the play’s original 1986 production. There are some nightmarish scenes and serious undercurrents, but, mostly the jokes come thick and fast and the only times that the play stops being funny are when Dear seems to become a little self-indulgent in expounding views on the arts. Overall, this revival can be branded fairly as a success.
Runs until 21 October 2018 | Image: Jason Bell