THERE’S something hugely refreshing about The Seven Acts of Mercy by Anders Lustgarten.
On the one hand its foul-mouthed kitchen sink realism would hardly endear it to your maiden aunt. But on the other, its blazing anger and searing humanity — brilliantly intercut between early 17th century Naples and 21st century Merseyside — turn what could have been a predictable left-wing polemic into a drama of classic dimensions.
First, there is the conception of the play, which is original to say the least. The idea of intermingling a great work of art and its creator, Caravaggio, with the social strains and political tensions of a working class community in modern day Bootle is not the most obvious storyline. But in the hands of Lustgarten this unlikely scenario is crafted with such masterly skill — and audacity — that it sticks in the mind for quite a while afterwards.
Yet however good the script, which was specially commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company, this would be no use without great acting. And the acting in this play is magnificent. In fact, it falls into that category of acting that is so good you don’t actually notice that they’re acting.
And for this the play’s director, Erica Whyman, the RSC’s deputy artistic director, can take huge credit. (One of the actors told me she was the best director he had ever worked with.)
There is good cause for trepidation about a political play that is partly set on Merseyside and in which even Caravaggio himself, in the Naples of four centuries ago, has a Scouse accent. After all, Liverpool is still remembered as the demesne once ruled over by Derek Hatton and the Militant Tendency. And there is something oh-so familiar about left-wing rhetoric uttered with a Liverpudlian twang.
Any such concerns swiftly evaporated as the full sweep of the play became apparent. It opens in Naples in the year 1606 with Caravaggio, superbly acted by Patrick O’Kane, in a makeshift studio within the walls of a church following his flight from Rome after killing a man in a duel. He is hot-tempered and quickly prone to violence — and very, very angry indeed. He is working on his latest commission, a painting that illustrates the seven acts of mercy — a work of art that speaks to, and for, the dispossessed. Meanwhile he is constantly on the lookout against powerful people in Rome who want to see him punished.
The scene switches to Bootle in 2016 where a terminally ill tenant, Leon Carragher (brilliantly played by the 79-year-old Tom Georgeson), is fighting to keep possession of his house as the money men try to force him out and into a care home. It shows Leon instructing his teenage grandson Mickey (played by the immensely talented 16-year-old TJ Jones) in the value of art, especially Caravaggio’s The Seven Acts of Mercy.
Meanwhile Mickey is trying to prove to his grandfather that true compassion can be found in people and not just in art.
There are some spellbinding performances in this production, arguably from every single member of the 17-strong cast. Special mention should be made of Allison McKenzie, who plays the part of the prostitute Lavinia, a friend of Caravaggio, in the Naples scenes. (Her Scottish accent sometimes comes as a welcome relief from the almost constant stream of Liverpudliana…)
She has the rather risqué duty of bearing her naked breasts early on in the play, strictly for the purposes of verisimilitude, of course. But her overwhelming impact on the audience was one of tremendously powerful acting. She would make a wonderfully feisty Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing.
The Seven Acts of Mercy was an interesting commission from the RSC, and it has proved thoroughly justified, especially given the rapturous applause it received on its first night.
The Seven Acts of Mercy runs until 10th February. Book tickets here