One of the more rewarding parts of a theatre critic’s job is to discover a talented young company and watch it develop. I greatly admired the previous two ensemble productions from simple8, both staged at the Arcola, and it’s delightful to report that this third project continues in the same vein of innovation on an earthbound budget. What the company could achieve with regular funding can only be guessed at.
Co-writers and directors Adam Brace and Sebastian Armesto have ingeniously chosen to flesh out the eponymous series of engravings by William Hogarth, produced in 1751. In four stark stages, orphan Tom Nero progresses from cruelty to animals to murder, winding up by being hung and eviscerated to the ghoulish delight of blood-thirsty spectators.
Hogarth packs in a wealth of detail but Brace and Armesto add even more, including a compelling account of Nero’s entanglement with two lethal Irish racketeers. Crucially, the piquant ambiguity in Hogarth’s moralising is explored: is it not a cruel society that begets cruel men?
The techniques of “poor theatre” have rarely been better employed, with a minimum of props conjuring up the gin-soaked free-for-all of 18th-century London. The nine-strong ensemble plays multiple parts as well as musical instruments, although Richard Maxted sticks to the role of wide-eyed, cold-hearted Nero. He wants in on whatever action’s going. His perky domestic servant girlfriend Annie (Stephanie Brittain) is up for mischief but not crime, which is why she won’t make it through to the final engraving. Superb.
By Fiona Mountford