Adapting William Hogarth’s coruscating vision of a vice-filled London is an attractive proposition. Substitute crack for gin, and his depiction of broken families and corrupt politicians could be ripped from today’s headlines. But Adam Brace and Sebastian Armesto’s interpretation for the stage of ‘The Four Stages of Cruelty’ reveals that successfully capturing the tone of the eighteenth-century satirist’s work is difficult.
Brace and Armesto – directing as well as writing – have taken Hogarth’s four engravings and evolved a narrative from them. The original prints show a destitute child, Tom Nero, go from killing a dog and mistreating a horse to being arrested for murdering a housemaid and ending up executed and dissected in front of a ghoulish crowd. Here, Tom is an orphan whose descent into a life of cruelty and crime is precipitated by brutalising poverty and his dealings with a pair of Irish racketeers who use him before betraying him. The maid is his pregnant lover, Ann, who he kills in desperation when a scheme in which he has involved her goes terribly awry.
The production has a lot to recommend it. The script is suitably grubby, skilfully interweaving eighteenth-century cant with modern cadences to create an atmosphere of unaffected authenticity. The play also succeeds in framing its story in a historical context that never feels intrusive or superfluous. Plot elements such as the tension between the Irish immigrants and the indigenous London working-class are fascinating additions, producing complex characters full of shade. A steely-eyed Dudley Hinton is impressive as the head of the Irish criminals, bristling with menace while harbouring a cancerous bitterness towards the English.
As an ensemble, the cast blend well; no single voice dominates. Whether jeering lasciviously through an execution, bellowing as market traders or evincing the casual sneer of the upper-classes, they knit tightly together the rotted sinews of a civic body that exudes hypocrisy and despair like pus from a sore. They also excel physically, either scrabbling around the stage with a concertina in mimicry of a dog or contorting their bodies to become a horse and carriage. The confident fluidity of their movements showcases the inventive minimalism of a production where props become animals in the blink of an eye.
The problem is that everything feels too ordered and small-scale in comparison with the original engravings, which heave with the tumult of a hundred nightmarish stories. They paint a picture of an earthly Pandemonium in which any trace of humanity has been buried beneath a chaotic mass of pox-ridden flesh that spills down steps and out of windows. While Brace and Armesto do their best to sustain a chorus of voices by turning a spotlight from one set of characters to another, evoking the dizzying level of perspective and detail in Hogarth’s work is arguably an impossible job; one that hasn’t been helped by the decision to produce the play in the Arcola’s black-box space rather than the main studio, with its crumbling brick-work and greater dimensions.
Another issue is the character of Tom Nero. In the original prints, even before his lifeless body is anatomised on the slab, a blade in his eye and his guts spilling from his stomach, Tom has become grotesque; something to be reviled. Etched on his snarling face is society’s corruption; he’s become indistinguishable from the horrors around him. Here, though – played with effortless charisma by Richard Maxted – he’s a modern anti-hero; good-looking and tortured. In of itself, there’s nothing wrong with this. But it isn’t Hogarth.
Ultimately, The Four Stages of Cruelty is a well-constructed and powerful play that can’t be faulted for its ambition but which suffers if you compare it too closely with the sequence of images from which it draws inspiration. Tellingly, it’s at its best during the masquerade ball in the second half. These scenes, which have no antecedent in Hogarth’s engravings, barrel along with some great dialogue and an imperious turn from Emily Pennant-Rea as the magnificently poisonous wife of the MP that Tom is using Ann to ensnare. In these moments, when contortions to accommodate eighteenth-century visual sensibilities are no longer necessary, the play soars.
At The Arcola Theatre, from 24 May to 24 June
First published by Exeunt Magazine