Seamlessly culled from a 1751 quartet of Hogarth engravings, Simple8’s ‘The Four Stages of Cruelty’ is a pungently evocative and blackly amusing masterclass in the art of poor theatre.
Using not much more than a table, some sheets, a banjo (which doubles as a dog), a mandolin (a horse) and two dead rabbits (er, two dead rabbits), the superb ensemble hurl us bodily into eighteenth-century London, a grubbily vibrant cesspit of whores, thieves, toffs and honest men, public hangings, gin palaces, brothels and stately homes.
Quite how historically accurate Adam Brace and Sebastian Armesto’s play is I’m uncertain – I’ll wager the quasi-mystical cab drivers’ guild is a pisstake – but it’s wholly engrossing; when a doorflap is lifted during a shop scene and a hubbub of voices rises up, you swear you could step through into the market beyond. It’s a stunning canvas; it’s just a shame that the story Simple8 choose to paint on it is a little conventional.
Hogarth’s etchings show the moral decline of one Tom Nero, who mistreats animals as a boy and ends up hanged as a man after murdering his pregnant lover. Here, boyishly handsome Richard Maxted plays Nero as a mixed-up kid with an explosive temper and an amoral streak.
Where Hogarth’s Nero was indeed cruel, visibly taking sadistic glee in violence, Simple8 present each incident as a momentary loss of control by a young man in over his depth. A sympathetic protagonist slips down more easily than Hogarth’s monster. But it also makes for a somewhat schematic plot and the feeling that where Hogarth stared unflinchingly into the abyss, Simple8 have taken the easy way out.