The reliance on an all-white cast to tell Hogarth’s Progress is another mis-step from a Rose Theatre Kingston who should know better
“We’ve all had our share of bad reviews”
The oft-misquoted George Santayana once said “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” and taking a glance at Nick Dear’s Hogarth’s Progress, you can’t help but feel it is most apposite for the folks at the Rose Theatre Kingston. Once again, they’re tackling a slice of English history in a multi-play format and once again, they’re doing it with a lily-white cast – diversity be damned!
It’s a bit exhausting to go over the same arguments but they still hold true. The notion of historical verisimilitude holds no water, not least because Dear has talked about employing dramatic licence with history itself, but because once again we’re not talking about German actresses being employed to play Queen Caroline (it is Susannah Harker, with an accent). We’re talking about directors not trusting that audiences will accept actors of colour in such roles, but also not doing enough to challenge such audience-held perceptions.
At a moment when British theatre seems to be heading in the right direction (Emilia, Sylvia, Queen Margaret, Wasted), this feels misguided by director Anthony Banks. In a theatre that was mired in a similar controversy just a couple of years ago, it feels wilfully ignorant. A regional theatre does have to take the conservatism (small c) of its patrons into account but equally, this is the 21st century and if theatre ignores the shifts in the social fabric, it can’t hope to survive and thrive.
With all this in mind, Nick Dear’s double bill Hogarth’s Progress, combining his 1986 play The Art of Success with a world premiere in The Taste of the Town, thus has a lot to do. Tracking the life of painter William Hogarth at two crucial points in his career, thirty years apart, they each stand alone but can be enjoyed as an all-day marathon. Both are slight comedies though, revelling in his predilection for a drink, so altogether it can feel like a lot.
The Art of Success was my preferred of the two, anchored by its own version of BDE (Bryan Dick energy…what else?!), as he rattles between his wife and numerous lovers, all the while spearheading a movement to secure copyright law for artists. Under the giant screen that dominates Andrew D Edwards’ set design (video and projection by Douglas O), Dick is well supported by strong turns from Ruby Bentall, Emma Cunniffe and Jasmine Jones as just some of the women in his life. Plus there’s a bawdy Sylvestra Le Touzel, she’s very good.
The Taste of the Town felt less successful to me, relying a little too much on Keith Allen being Keith Allen for my tastes. 30 years down the line, the Hogarths’ marriage has remained intact, his career going from strength and strength, and yet he remains unsatisfied. There’s little of the same energy here, so much less at stake, and more of a self-satisfied railing against critics. Striking work does come from Mark Umbers’ as a foppish David Garrick.
You might think that theatre is just theatre, a play is just a play. And in that regard, there’s some good light comedy here – particularly in the first part. But I believe art is so much more than that, a chance for the imagination to take flight as in a striking moment late in The Art of Success that prefigures the selfie movement, a chance to challenge societal attitudes and encourage them to progress – after all, the play isn’t called Hogarth’s Stagnation…