By Ruth Hudson
William Hogarth rose into popular acclaim in 1732 with publication of engravings after the first of his so-called ‘modern moral subjects’, The Harlot’s Progress and most famously, Marriage A-la-Mode. He focused on depicting the aesthetics of London’s exuberant streets and the forbidden discourse of sexuality. Of course, at the time, sex could be talked about in brothels but not in the open public, and it seems that Hogarth expressed his subconscious through the figure of the prostitute.
Last week, students from the Manchester School of Theatre explored Hogarth’s life in a production entitled The Art of Success, staged at HOME, Manchester. The writer of the play, Nick Dear, focuses on art as it moved from the mantelpiece of the wealthy aristocrat to the mass market. Dear examines ten years of Hogarth’s life, much of which included prostitution, debauchery, politicians and even an ambitious murderess.
Before the performance begins, William Hogarth, played by Johnny Byrom, Harry Fielding, played by Jerome Dowling and Frank, played by Lewis Molyneux, lie inebriated around a dining table, which has a caricature picture frame towering above the stage. Here, director, David Shirley, deliberately references one of Hogarth’s paintings to further paint a portrait of his life. In the play, Hogarth moves between reality and subconsciousness, intermittently fantasizing of his wife castrating him.The bulk of the action, however, pivots around Hogarth’s pursuit of notorious murderess, Sarah Sprackling, played by Laura Ferries, to make his artist’s fortune.
Hopes and ambitions are achieved in different ways throughout the performance. For example, Louisa, played by Comfort Fabien, succeeds in seeing the queen, Sarah Sprackling retrieves Hogarth’s drawing of herself and Hogarth’s wife Jane, played by Harriet Poole, wants her husband to finally paint her. The ending of the play triumphs in creating a bizarre vision of Britain’s industrial future, demonstrated as Hogarth is handed a Polaroid camera during as an orgy begins between his wife and friends.
It is clear that, in The Art of Success, the Manchester School of Theatre have successfully mastered the art of producing a tastefully hysteric performance, the cast moving in harmonious precision to sculpt a beautiful portrayal of Hogarth’s life. Johnny Byrom’s performance as the artist is dazzlingly witty throughout and a massive round of applause was given to Laura Ferries who magnificently portrayed her character as contemptible yet strikingly brave in what she wanted to achieve, ie Hogarth’s painting of her distorted self. It was remarkable to see such passion for sexual infatuation in a decadent era which harboured prostitution as the norm.
For more information about upcoming theatre productions, see the HOME website.