Premiere throws a spotlight on the pursuit of pleasure

We all know what a terrific asset DanceEast and the Jerwood DanceHouse is to the area. Now the rest of the country will be getting a flavour of the excellent work they are capable of when, next week, they host the world premiere of the new dance-theatre work Pleasure’s Progress.

For the first time ever, the Royal Opera House is premiering a new ROH2 commission outside of its London theatre. Pleasure’s Progress will open at the DanceHouse in Ipswich before moving to Covent Garden, then going to the Latitude Festival before heading off to The Lowry in Salford as part of the Royal Opera House’s - On the Road regional programme.

Pleasure’s Progress – intriguingly sub-titled A tale of Sex! Wigs! Wags! ‘n’ Bawds is the latest ROH2 work by director and choreographer Will Tuckett. A fusion of opera, dance and music, it explores the colourful and bawdy world of the English painter, printmaker and satirist William Hogarth.

Tuckett, a huge admirer of Hogarth’s work, has raided some of Hogarth’s most celebrated, often most cutting, works for inspiration. Among the famous prints, drawings and paintings which have been reworked into this dance-theatre spectacular are: A Rake’s Progress, Marriage � la Mode, A Harlot’s Progress and Beer Street and Gin Lane.

Speaking from rehearsals Will said that he was inspired by Hogarth’s dark pictorial narratives which he has combined with what he describes as a vivid slice of historic Covent Garden. The result is a riot of stories and characters with plenty of ribald fun, bawdy language, and even some pointed observations on the human tragedies that lie beneath.

He said it was quite a heady mix of ingredients for a heading subject. “My brief was quite difficult. The ROH2 programme wanted something for their On The Road programme but they wanted it to have one foot rooted in something that was already on the Covent Garden stage.

“They are reviving Rake’s Progress and I have always loved Hogarth’s stuff and I suddenly thought there’s such a wealth of stories and material around Hogarth and what finally clinched it for me was finding an etching with the buildings of Covent Garden in it. It suddenly struck me that nothing had changed. All the buildings around the piazza are identical still.

Most Read

“The strange and wonderful thing about Hogarth is that it feels like he’s talking about a world which was a long time ago but you stop and think about it and everything he is talking about is going on now.”

He said that during the process of creating the show he started to muse about what Hogarth would make of today’s society and sadly realised that the artist and social commentator would probably be very depressed by the fact that all the social ills he tried to draw to people’s attention were still causing grief and anxiety today.

“I think he would be very upset by the fact that we clearly haven’t learned anything. It’s extraordinary.”

He said that in Georgian London, alcohol abuse was a real problem. In the City of London in 1765 six million gallons of gin were drunk and every other building in the city housed a distillery. “I found that a terrifying statistic. And if that wasn’t bad enough, the alcohol content was so strong that it would make you go blind, so they cut it with sulphuric acid. It’s no wonder that people died.”

He added that if that wasn’t bad enough, the rates of venereal disease had rocketed. “You see films and you go ‘Wouldn’t it be marvellous to live in olden times. Well research as shown. No it wouldn’t. Everyone was dying of something unpleasant.”

He said that historical films that portray the era or even the plays and literature of the time only tend to look at Georgian life from the point of view if the aristocracy. “But, even they suffered. You see portraits with men and women wearing black beauty spots. They were there not just for the sake of fashion. They were leather patches designed to cover up your open syphilis sores, so not even the aristocracy was immune.”

He said all this came into sharp focus when the brief included the line that the work has to reach and speak to young people.

“I do a lot of work for young audiences, for children, but I think there is a real dearth of material for young adults – say from the ages of 15 upwards. It’s that awkward age when you are trapped between children’s television, which is too young for you, and 18 certificate movies which you aren’t allowed to see. It’s that strange period in your life when the world seems tilted against you.”

He said that the issues that Hogarth was tackling in Georgian London are very relevant to the world in which we live and they are very much a part of. “You see the headlines about teenage kids going out drinking, having sex, living the party lifestyle and yet in Georgian London they too were worried about drinking to excess and tried to put a cap on how cheaply you could sell alcohol for, which exactly what the new Government is trying to do. Then I saw a poster the other day announcing that HIV is now at its highest spread rate. But no-one is talking about it any more. I also discovered that syphilis has come back. How is that possible?

“Okay, it can be treated with antibiotics but there’s a whole section of the community that has forgotten how dangerous these problems can be. It seems that the pursuit of pleasure is the ultimate goal and nothing else matters, which is why I have called the piece Pleasure’s Progress.”

He said that the ultimate of the production was that it draws attention to the result of your actions. “You have to see the consequences of what you do.”

Will says that apart from Hogarth’s skill as an artist, he admires his work because he was in a unique place to comment on both strands of society. He came from a humble background, the son of a poor London school teacher, and he married into society, he married Jane Thornhill, the daughter of the man who painted St Paul’s Cathedral.

He loved the hustle and bustle of street life and began his career by drawing the characters he saw there but was also drawn to the politics and social intrigue he witnessed in high society. “Not only could he communicate to both classes, he was the first person to introduce the copyright law. He employed the copyright law because he wanted to mass produce his work. He wanted to get it out to people. That’s why he made his works entertaining, funny. He wanted to tell people’s stories. He wanted to talk about their life, to make social comment.”

Pictures were taken from real life events. The picture Gin Lane tells the story of a woman who dropped and killed her baby because she was drunk. She then pawned the baby’s clothes for money to buy gin. “As the trial was going on, he brought out these etchings because he wished to comment on what was happening.”

Will said that same spirit of entertainment and commentary infuses his dance-theatre-opera work Pleasure’s Progress. It’s lively, it’s funny, there are plenty of rude jokes about body parts and sexual organs but there is also a morality tale wrapped up in the entertainment. Something for audiences to mull over as they leave and perhaps talk about on their way home.

He said that it’s not a lecture in any way. “No-one likes being lectured and I’m in no position to provide moral guidance when I look back to my own youthful indiscretions but the idea is to entertain and in doing so make some thoughtful observations about the way we live and the problems we are creating for ourselves.”

He said that the show is set in Bedlam, the London asylum, as seen in the very last image of Hogarth’s The Rake’s Progress and all the people in the picture then tell you the stories of how they got there. We have also taken the stories behind Hogarth’s other works Harlot’s progress and Marriage-a-la-Mode and attributed them to characters in the piece.

He describes the libretto by Alasdair Middleton as witty and naughty with original music by composer Paul Englishby, composer of the award-winning film An Education. “We wanted it to be supremely entertaining. There’s a lot of Carry-On smutty humour which is offset by some quite tragic stories.”

He said that quality of the story was raised even further by the stunning dancers and singers which have been cast including Laura Caldow, Anna Dennis, Matthew Hart, Matthew Sharp, Nuno Silva, Tom Solomon and Clemmie Sveaas. “We have this beautiful soprano, who is singing about stupid tit jokes at the beginning and then by the end she is distraught because she has lost everything. It’s heartbreaking.”

One of the other areas they tackle is the insane belief, popular in Georgian London, that if a man had the pox, and he slept with a virgin, he would then be cured. “In some parts of the world, they still think that superstitious practice will cure AIDS. It hasn’t gone away. I am now a parent, it’s enough to make you cry. It makes you think, how does the world work?”

He said rehearsals have been very rewarding with dancers, singers and the creative team all working very closely together, shaping the performance for its opening night in Ipswich. “I am hoping that it’s a show which lets you in. You don’t have to read the programme or do background research to understand it. You come long, you are entertained and you go away with something to think about, having seen a wonderful night in the theatre.”

Assis Carreiro, DanceEast’s artistic director and chief executive, is delighted to be re-newing their relationship with ROH2, having brought their production of The Red Balloon to the New Wolsey Theatre last year. “Over the past few years, DanceEast’s partnership with the Royal Opera House has developed from strength to strength and we are delighted to now be hosting the world premiere of ROH2’s Pleasure’s Progress, created by Will Tuckett in our new Jerwood DanceHouse.

“It is a brilliant opportunity for audiences outside of London to see world class dance on their doorstep and to establish the DanceHouse as a key national venue. This new production has all of Tuckett’s characteristic flair for the unusual and inventive with a collision of styles and influences from classical singing to not-so-classical dance. Expect wit and wonder, fun and frolics and an irreverent take on the darker side of society.”

n Pleasure’s Progress, created by Will Tuckett, inspired by William Hogarth is at Jerwood DanceHouse, Ipswich: 18 June at 7.30pm, 19 June at 2pm and 7.30pm. Suitable for ages 15+. Contains adult themes. Tickets: �14, �6 concessions. Box office: 01473 295230 /