Here’s art not for art’s sake, but for very little sake at all. Nick Dear’s portrait of a young, horned-up William Hogarth, The Art of Success, premiered in Stratford in 1986. Thirty years later he revisits him towards the end of his life – now an embittered and despondent – for a new play, The Taste of the Town.
Both plays make for a watchable double-bill but it’s hard to know what the point of it all is.
A lower-middle class success story, Hogarth was famed for his ‘progress’ paintings split into various parts and depicting harlots and rakes. He was also responsible for copyright law, and that’s the thrust of the first play: the ownership of art. It turns out writing a play about copyright law is just as tricky as it sounds.
The first play suspends itself between two modes, of varying eloquence. One has the characters proclaim highly-wrought lines on the meaning of art. The other contains lines like: “fart for me. Go on. Fart in my face,”
Dear’s trying to build a picture of 18th century London in all its shades. But the chasm between these registers really jars.
There are full-blooded, lusty performances particularly from Bryan Dick as Hogarth and Ian Hallard as a debauched peer. Impressive support, too, from Ruby Bentall and Jasmine Jones.
Dear draws a vivid world of brothels and venereal diseases, murder and the crossover of high and low societies. But it doesn’t really go anywhere. There’s not a huge sense of who Hogarth is, except that he’s really horny and trying to hide it from his wife.
Part two is more finely textured in some respects, and painted in broader strokes in others. David Garrick enters the scene as Hogarth’s friend, and this provides many opportunities – and none missed – for jokes about how shallow the theatre world is.
Sylvestra Le Touzel is a highlight of this play as Lady Thornhill, Hogarth’s mother-in-law (plenty of those jokes too), a grande old dame who speaks in scathing aphorisms. Her archness and her scorn are supreme – but the character is old hat. Keith Allen is great as older Hogarth. He’s less mannered than the rest of the cast and great fun to watch.
Andrew D Edwards’ design is clever: a giant canvas with sketches and paintings projected onto it. But it’s an encumbrance, too, having to be wheeled slowly around between scenes.
Each play contains one great scene: the first has a murderer displeased with the way Hogarth has painted her and desperate to destroy the sketch before it’s released to posterity. It raises questions about who owns their likeness in a painting, the painter or the painted.
In the second it’s an exchange between Hogarth and art critic Horace Walpole. They sit side by side on a long bench, Keith Allen’s rough-edged Hogarth drunk almost to oblivion and Hallard’s Walpole the picture of the effete, gout-infested, snobbish aesthete. They bond, in the end, over the loss of their beloved dogs.
But what Dear is trying to say with both these pieces is unclear. Not artless, then, but not far off.