Michael Clarke sees pupils commemorate Hogarth's 300th anniversary with a ballad opera.
Taken at face value, the statement that "Centre Stage is a cross arts education project, initiated by the Tate Gallery in collaboration with the Royal National Theatre and the Orchestra of St John's Smith Square" is at once true and false. Even at the earliest stages of rehearsal, Hallisinia or Money Talks, a ballad opera written in their own time by pupils from 10 secondary schools in the London boroughs of Lambeth and Southwark, has much more of the social relevance, wit and energy associated with a sure-fire West End success than a pedagogical enterprise however well-meaning.
If the tercentenary of William Hogarth's birth was the starting point for this 18-month project, the choice of subject was left to the mostly 15-year-old pupils.
According to one of them: "We decided to use the Marriage a la Mode story because it isn't carved in stone. We could play with Hogarth's image of London and his characters because the ideas are still modern." Another says: "Hogarth was a London bloke and he wants everyone to see what he thinks about London. " And another: "It was interesting to start with paintings because it gave us a storyline but without dialogue and background details which makes you expand your mind and imagination." And finally: "Hogarth sees the world as chaotic. He was a poor boy made good, so he's not in a position to look down on anyone 'cause he's been there. We are now the Londoners." And so they are.
Aided and abetted by writer-director John Abulafia, composer Cameron Sinclair, and designer Annabelle Batchelor, these metropolitan teenagers have gone beyond a pastiche of John Gay's The Beggar's Opera to follow the example of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's The Threepenny Opera in their exploration of sleaze, moral decline and the collapse of family values. "If it's rude, don't blame us, blame Hogarth. London may have changed in looks, but it's still the same ideas and principles."
The first groups to form themselves were the writers, each one associated with a character in Hogarth's narrative. "Hogarth was cool." "He had a very cynical outlook on life and painted things the way they were. Our characters have stayed true to the paintings, but we have invented Lucy who's an innocent and redeeming character." "The writers' biggest problem was Annabelle and the arranged marriage. We realise that today people do get married for money and we made it more interesting by saying she knew what she was doing."
"The composers had to make the script and the music fit each other and every new idea meant rewriting something. The designers had the opposite problem to the writers because by the time they started, so much was fixed. They had to create costumes and sets that fitted the characters personalities, reflecting the mood of the music and what was possible on stage."
Role play, consideration of 18th-century song forms and visits to authentic or reconstructed places associated with Hogarth were important stimulation, but the very pertinent inclusion of present-day street-wise colloquialisms, rap and rock rhythms, not to forget Vivienne Westwood and a whole battery of subcultural influences, is also very evident.
Watching professional performers give the same serious consideration to the interpretation of these teenagers' intentions as they would to established composers and dramatists is sufficient vindication of this project but, when the curtain goes up on the public performances, the incalculable benefits of so ambitious an enterprise will be confirmed.
For information on performances, telephone the Tate Gallery, 0171 887 8000 Hogarth tercentenary events at the Tate Gallery, London: Hogarth the Painter until June 8 Hogarth's London until June 8 Designs for Hallisinia or Money Talks, Cafe Display Area April 19-May 26 Other Hogarth events: The Rake's Progress, Sir John Soanes Museum, London, until August 31 William Hogarth: Portrait in Focus, National Portrait Gallery, London, June 30-October 3 William Hogarth: The Artist and the City, Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester, September 12-November 16 Hogarth and His Times, British Museum, London, September 26-January 4 Marriage a la Mode, National Gallery, London, October 15-January 18 Hogarth after Hogarth: A Legacy of Inspiration, Victoria Albert Museum, London, October 15-March 22 Hogarth's Relationship with the Foundling Hospital, Thomas Coram Foundation, London, during November