The Four Stages of Cruelty, Arcola Theatre, London

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The Independent Culture

Simple8 specialise in creating theatrical riches on a shoestring, making you feel that, where drama is concerned, a vow of poverty is not necessarily an exercise in self-abnegation.

I have seen and admired both of their previous productions – a beautifully focused stage version of Les Enfants du Paradis, and The Living Unknown Soldier, an intellectually teasing and emotionally wrenching piece that took its cue from the real-life case of an amnesiac French soldier during the First World War.

Now their latest project, The Four Stages of Cruelty, demonstrates anew the company's ebullient flair for suggesting a whole teeming society with just the use of a few props and musical underscoring by accordion and violin and their knack of alighting on a fertile subject. The title refers to a set of engravings by Hogarth that depict junctures in the downward progression of a protagonist called Tom Nero who starts off as a charity boy torturing domestic pets and winds up, via the debauching and murder of a housemaid, a corpse taken down from the gallows and hacked apart publicly on the dissecting table both in the interests of medical science and as dire warning.

The engravings are pinned up and aggressively ripped down on the washing line that is one of the few elements of decor in a staging that is full of raw, pointed energy and attack. The piece (which was written by its directors Adam Brace and Sebastian Armesto) picks up on little details in the Hogarth and extrapolates them into a narrative that conjures up a society where the disproportionately vicious reprisals of the state against crime were themselves a corruptingly bad example. The play begins and ends with a crowd sadistically agog at a hanging and the public vivisection of Tom. Handsome, big-boned, with bright close-together blue eyes, the excellent Richard Maxted makes you feel that Tom is a reclaimable shifting palimpsest of all his various selves as he finds himself embroiled in working for a protection racket in London markets where the Irish (represented here by the disturbingly mercurial Dudley Hinton and Christopher Doyle) have the monopoly. Individual conscience is not let off the hook, but the piece vividly reanimates the truth of Auden's lines that "Those to whom evil is done/Do evil in return."



To 24 June (020 7503 1646)

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