New Statesman review of The Four Stages of Cruelty

How does a series of 18th century engravings translate to the modern stage? Theatre company Simple8 have answered that question with The Four Stages of Cruelty, based on the work of William Hogarth.

The play, at London's Arcola Theatre, tells a riveting tale of self-immersion, ambition and cruelty. Although it delivers a vivid account of life in the 18th century, it does stray from Hogarth's artistic vision.

The Four Stages of Cruelty was initially a series of printed engravings by Hogarth, published in the London Evening Post in 1751. Within them, he depicted four scenes of cruelty's path. Beginning in the first and second stages with the abuse of animals, the series climaxes with Cruelty in Perfection, a scene of seduction, corruption and brutal murder. The fourth stage illustrates the Rewards of Cruelty; the lead character Tom Nero has been hanged and is mutilated by surgeons for research, destroying his soul and possibility of afterlife.

Although the play does attach significance to these moments, it explores an alternative perspective to Hogarth's, exploring why and how Nero becomes so cruel.

Its structure is circular, beginning with Oliver Birch as the evil surgeon about to dissect the dead criminal, moving backwards to the introduction of boy Tom, shortly to commit his first cruel act: the torture of a stray dog.

Simple8 are renowned for "theatre on a shoestring", and I marvelled at their ingenuity creating a horse, using only a violin case and a chair, and the sound of the gallows sound, using a cutting board and a piece of wood. But I wasn't convinced by their puppet of a dog - I thought it was a pigeon perching on a concertina until Nero thrust the arrow down its arse.

Every character in Four Stages, important or incidental, is portrayed in context and with delightful detail. There are boisterous performances from Emily Pennant-Rea (as both High Lady and prostitute), Hannah Emmanuel (as the teetotal housekeeper who's secretly an alcoholic) and others. In the intimate theatre of the Arcola, with just inches between actors and audience, characters burst to life in front of you, bristling with emotion and energy.

The problem with this play is the characterisation of Tom Nero. From Hogarth's work it is quite clear that Nero is unrepentant and evil; Richard Maxted's portrayal, on the other hand, feels weak, if confident and reasonably nasty. He is not a bad actor; the script simply doesn't depict Hogarth's Tom Nero.

The engraver depicted Nero as a cold blooded killer who coerced his lover into stealing for him and then brutally murdered her; this play explores a man who is bereft of family, impressionable and blind with ambition. This leads him to do cruel deeds, but not, as Hogarth suggested, because he has a taste for cruelty. The surgeon's final examination reflects this: "The heart shows no outward signs of darkness... [so we must look] elsewhere in the host."

Despite this it retains other aspects of Hogarth's approach, such as his prophetic clues. In his First Stage, for example, there is a chalk drawing of a man hanging with the words "Tom Nero" inscribed beneath. Simple8 also endeavour to give subtle foreshadowings. Early on, Tom and Ann describe how they would mutilate each other for love. "I want to rip you open," breathes Ann, "crack open your ribs".

"You'll have to cut me open and slice out my heart," returns Tom, unknowingly predicting his own fate.

Though many of his works were humorous, Hogarth kept Four Stages serious. Simple8 have blended satirical notions about class structure and the capitalist world to create jokes which fit the dark tone and rhythm of the piece.

Overall, the play boasts a treasure chest of talented actors, impressive musicians and intelligent scripting and directing. Venturing further than Hogarth's rigid morality lesson, it explores 18th century society while smoothly spinning the terrible tale of Tom Nero.