The Seven Acts of Mercy
This gritty new play by Anders Lustgarten, playing at the Swan Theatre, is brilliantly directed by Erica Whyman.
The starting point is simple enough. Caravaggio’s painted altarpiece The Seven Acts of Mercy, is set in a Naples Street and depicts the seven acts of mercy undertaken by the lay brothers of the church of the Pio Monte della Misericordia where the painting can still be found. Caravaggio used real people as his models for the allegorical figures in the painting and so Lustgarten intersperses the story of Caravaggio’s creation of his painting with scenes from everyday poverty and deprivation in Bootle. The play examines the disgrace of governmental policies of austerity creating poverty and homelessness, raising the question of whether it is possible or likely that those not wedded to Toryism and Bexitism can do anything positive to act. It centres on pensioner Leon Carragher and his relationship with his grandson Mickey as they discover that they are going to lose their home. Leon’s son Lee, himself a product of this social spiralling, an edgy and difficult character like Caravaggio, is instrumental in evicting people from their homes and is in part instrumental in hastening his son’s and father’s imminent demise.
The stories are told unsentimentally and there are many moments when Whyman slows the action down, forces the audience to be mentally active during long pauses and therefore to be engaged with the characters’ dilemmas. It is political drama but only occasionally agitprop (a politician’s speech about housing had me yawning and looking at my watch, but this was rare).
The set is splendid. Tom Piper has designed a range of locations simply on a stripped down, no frills, essentially bare stage, dominated by Caravaggio’s transparent picture frame on casters. A room is quickly and efficiently created. So are streets, a food bank, and a hospital room. This enables the action to flow freely between Naples and Bootle and for one to be a metaphor for the other. Caravaggio’s paintings are projected onto the backdrop and the sides of the stage so that the audience is prompted always to think of one setting while they are presented with the other on stage.
The acting, particularly the ensemble work, is extremely strong. We are forced to examine the relationship between Caravaggio and the prostitute Lavinia and to ponder the difficult relationships between fathers and sons. Indeed the best bits of the play are where very little is happening. There are some wonderful moments between Leon (Tom Georgeson) and Mickey (TJ Jones), between Caravaggio (Patrick O’Kane) and Lavinia (Allison McKenzie) and between Caravaggio and the Marchese (Edmund Kingsley). There is also the delight of Vincenzo’s (or is it James Corrigan’s?) wonderful naked upper body.
In preview I felt the play was a touch long and I could have done without some of the sermons about social issues. But I loved the vignettes of the food bank presided over by Karen (Eloise Secker) and the relationship between Sandra (Lena Kaur) and Danny (Nicky Priest).
This is a fine new play which you should see. The RSC is not just Shakespeare.