THE SEVEN ACTS OF MERCY
The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 22nd December, 2016
Anders Lustgarten’s new play is a powerful and thought-provoking piece set in two seemingly disparate time periods. Naples 1606 and Bootle 2016 take their turns on the stage. In the former, we meet painter and outlaw Caravaggio; the latter introduces us to Leon Carragher and his grandson Mickey. While Caravaggio seeks to restore ‘dignity to the poor’ by using them as life models for his great works, Leon strives to pass on his old-school socialist values through art appreciation discussions with young Mickey. The painting that gives the play its title becomes a list of socialist principles, i.e. the decency of human beings. With Leon ailing fast, Mickey embarks on a photography project with his mobile phone, to show his granddad there is still decency left in people, despite appearances to the contrary in this self-serving, selfish society, where compassion is seen as a political act.
A strong link between the two eras is Caravaggio’s thick Merseyside accent. Patrick O’Kane is electrifying as the intense and passionate painter, a common man made great through talent, hard work and opportunity. He finds a kindred spirit in the form of a life model, Lavinia (a fiery Allison McKenzie), who is forced to abandon her artistic ambitions and be a prostitute.
Edmund Kingsley provides contrast as the well-spoken Marchese, a decent if condescending figure, and the extremely good-looking James Corrigan brings a touch of oomph as Vincenzo, one of Caravaggio’s pickups.
As Leon, Tom Georgeson exudes strength and weakness, often in the same breath, as old socialism dies out. His values have skipped a generation (Don’t we know it!), as evinced by his property developer-cum-gangster son Lee (Gyuri Sarossy) – Hope lies within the upcoming generation, represented here by Mickey (TJ Jones). Their Bootle is tough. Ruthless government policies enable the ruthless to prey on the vulnerable. The cold cruelty of the bedroom tax and its consequences could not be made plainer. The play wears its relevance on its sleeve, lain on like the thickest impasto – and it could not be more timely. Also apparent is the pride of the poor: having to go to a food bank is a demeaning process. Gangsters Razor (Patrick Knowles) and Prime (Leon Lopez) are darkly funny, menacing and violent – as though a couple of Pinter’s hard men have moved to the north west. They are the ones with power, nasty, cruel and vicious, enabling the will of the unseen big boys to be enforced.
Director Erica Whyman uses contrasts of dark and light, noise and silence, like the painter used chiaroscuro. Charles Balfour’s lighting design certainly replicates the painter’s dramatic lighting – Surely, Caravaggio invented staged lighting long before the theatre had the technology to bring it about!
The scenes are intense and gripping but there is also warmth, humour and humanity here. As Lavinia comments on Caravaggio’s work-in-progress, the individual scenes are great, but the whole lacks a unifying feature. It is only at the end, when Mickey’s latter-day Seven Acts is finished and Granddad is wheezing his last, that the two worlds come together. Caravaggio has passed on his baton at last. What are we to do with it? As Leon observes, you have to be strong to be kind.
We must be strong.