THE RAKE'S PROGRESS: DO YOU KNOW WHERE TOM RAKEWELL IS? adapted by Autumn Smith and Cathy Murphy (MacKenzieRo). Factory Mainspace beginning January 8.
You can't beat the story of a man driven to ruin by drink, sex and gambling.
While we might not react to such a tale's moral aspect today, it's the meat of The Rake's Progress, a series of 18th-century engravings by William Hogarth that inspired a 1951 Igor Stravinsky opera.
Director Autumn Smith and performer Cathy Murphy have taken the story of Tom Rakewell, his fiancée Anne Trulove and the seductive Nick Shadow (love those descriptive names) and given it a contemporary spin, blending Hogarth with W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman's opera libretto, but without Stravinsky's music.
"It's grounded in the 18th century, the most lascivious time England had ever seen - all filth, stench and debauchery," says Smith, who lost a chance to workshop the piece last spring when Equity Showcase closed.
"But it's also about London, where I used to live. I've visited all the places in the engravings, and while it was centuries later, I could still feel the chaos of the city, like it's on a constant high. The tube may stop running at 11, but you sense an underbelly unlike that of any other place."
The adaptation includes historical figures, among them class climbers and renowned prostitutes of the period.
"That matches the engravings' richness," adds Smith, whose directing work includes The Weir and Disco Pigs. "Each one is an episode of the tale, and each is crammed with characters and unruly confusion, creating a claustrophobic space that closes in on Tom as he descends toward madness and incarceration in Bedlam.
"Our major set piece is a large picture frame, a visual tool that not only contains the action but also becomes a bed, a carriage, a table and other things."
Though the story has a moral, Smith and Murphy make sure every character has a sympathetic element , even Nick
and Baba the Turk, the older woman who in the opera is a mercenary sideshow attraction (the bearded lady) but here cares for Tom.
"We've also changed the relationship between Tom and Anne, which was originally filled with budding-young-love writing. Now the draw between them is clearly sexual and deeper at its core.
"What was simply a moral story here becomes more of a tragedy."