We grab a table in a café near the Truman Brewery as around us London does what it does; it pulses, it rumbles, somewhere nearby someone cranks up their speakers. When the music abates, I ask: why this particular Hogarth narrative?
“For me it was my favourite one,” Brace begins. “When I first saw it in the Hogarth Museum in Chiswick (not necessarily completely sober, he later adds, but very respectful) they struck me. Firstly it’s a great title.” Armesto agrees, picking up the baton. “Not all of them have a through narrative. In Gin Lane and Beer Street, there’s a basic hypothesis being put forward rather than a story being told. But in The Four Stages of Cruelty Hogarth himself is trying to tell a story.”
Aesthetically the engravings also appealed to them. “There’s a roughness to them,” Armersto explains. “[Hogarth] only made a metal plate for two of them, the others are wood cuts. They were rough. They’re not the symphony that Marriage a la Mode is. They’re the rankest ones.” He pauses, expands on this. “There’s a great balance in Hogarth’s work. They’re all essentially just lines, different strengths of line, cross-hatching. There’s a roughness, yet at the same time the precision involved is impressive and special. There’s this weird marriage that hopefully is evident in our production as well.” Brace agrees. “They’re not cartoons but they’re what we would anachronistically know now as having a cartoonish quality. They’re broad and picaresque and it’s that spirit we’ve tried to take.”
I’m interested in how one goes about adapting such source material for the stage, in how a story can be drawn out from these four plates. Brace explains something of their process. “We have very much expanded the narrative but it runs through all of the points shown in the engravings. In some ways we’ve been very true to them. For example, in the third plate, there’s a letter that Ann Gill leaves. We’ve built the writing of that letter into the play and that letter tells you about her motivations. On a smaller scale, though there’s no boxing match in the engravings, there are boxing posters and [the skeleton of] a boxer is being displayed in the last plate. So we’ve pulled out things like that.”
They have taken a decision not to make such a clear delineation between each stage as Hogarth does, to make the story more linear, more flowing. The prints lend themselves to this treatment, as Armersto says, “Hogarth hints at the stories in-between. He calls it The Four Stages of Cruelty and there are four plates but there are many stages.” Brace builds on this, “we don’t isolate four very clear stages. It’s a decision we took quite early on, not to make it into four chapters.” Instead the final dissection is used as a framing device, opening and closing Tom Nero’s bloody history.