En route to the Rag Factory in Brick Lane, where simple8 are rehearsing their forthcoming production of The Four Stages of Cruelty, I take a detour. I wander up Fournier Street, past the imposing bulk of Christchurch Spitalfields and loop back down Princelet Street. Here are shutters and doorways of the Huguenot houses painted in shades of plum, charcoal and mossy green (one is being given a fresh coat of lavender paint as I walk past); there’s a definite air of prosperity and polish – these are now covetable properties – but there is also a sense something more charged: over here the shutters are flaking and crumbling, over there is the building that houses the Jewish scholar David Rodinsky’s room, a favourite obsession of Iain Sinclair. There is a sense of the past floating close to the surface; there are glimpses of things that William Hogarth might just recognise.
The Four Stages of Cruelty are a series of four printed engravings first published by Hogarth in 1751. Collectively they form a warning as they tell the story of Tom Nero, his fall and further fall. Across the four panels Tom is first seen torturing dogs with a gaggle of ragged boys; in the next panel, the grown up Tom, now a hackney coachman, is seen brutally whipping his horse; in the third he commits murder, slaying is lover Ann Gill, and the fourth the circle completes itself: Tom himself is hung for his crimes and his body dissected, as the bodies of executed men tended to be, by a surgeon and his students. In one particularly black detail, a dog is seen picking through Tom’s spilled innards.
Tom’s story has been adapted for the stage by Adam Brace, whose first full length play, Stovepipe – originally produced as part of the High Tide Festival – received widespread critical praise when it was staged in a west London shopping centre in collaboration with the National Theatre and the Bush Theatre, and simple8’s Sebastian Armesto. I ask how one might cram the stink and sprawl of Hogarthian London into the Arcola Theatre’s small studio space. Both Brace and Armesto are convinced that a small space is ideal for conveying the intensity of eighteenth century London, the proximity, the cacophony, the pile of body upon body; ‘cram’ is very much the right word. It’s fitting too, Armesto points out, that the current home of the Arcola, the Colourworks building in Dalston, dates to a similar period to the engravings.