A lesson in contemporary compassion – Seven Acts of Mercy at the RSC

Anders Lustgarten’s Seven Acts of Mercy at the RSC, plays on so many contemporary issues that it’s hard to know where to break them down, weigh their value and place them either as the central tenet of the play, or one of the side issues.

Caravaggio's Seven Acts of Mercy
A lesson in contemporary compassion – Caravaggio’s Seven Acts of Mercy

The play, set in present day Bootle and 1606 Naples, draws a line directly from one era to the other. The strongest reading and perhaps the only one possible in contemporary Britain, is that the poor are still being fucked over by the rich and aspirational. A dying grandfather teaches his grandson the value of art, and why it shows us who we really are, while Caravaggio, working on his commission to paint the Seven Acts of Mercy, deals with his own demons and finds friends in unexpected places.

It would be easy enough to place Caravaggio in the role of tortured, great artist. But this Caravaggio is more than a stereotype. He’s also an avatar for Lustgarten, who has his own love/hate relationship with theatre and theatre audiences. (Two typical quotes: “Most people who go to the theatre are sort of beyond salvation.” and “80% of theatre was bourgeois wank.” [Source: Guardian].) Patrick O’Kane’s portrayal brings a strength and desperation to the role that does the writer justice: hitting the dark notes of a gay artist struggling with his demons (or the church’s demons, more accurately). And besides, who doesn’t love a camp scouse accent?

It’s the scouse accent that draws that connecting line to the present day Bootle, where Leon (Tom Georgeson) is trying to teach his grandson the values of being a kind, caring human being, through close study of Caravaggio’s Seven Acts of Mercy. TJ Jones as his grandson Mickey gives a strong, understated performance that manages to hint at an suppressed innocence ready to explode at the injustices at the world.

Georgeson’s Leon is (literally) a dying breed of man that is fast disappearing from Britain. Or at least, being denied any public face in our media. Our current anti-intellectual, anti-expert society seems to have lost pride in the desire for knowledge as an end in itself. Perhaps because we started to think of going to University as an aspirational objective, along with getting our own house and getting that middle-management, white collar job? When Leon and Mickey sit down to look at Van Gough’s The Sower, it isn’t the figure that Leon wants Mickey to understand, it’s the soil that has been turned by hard work and an honest day’s work. Time spent creating and committing to achieving something in the world.

There’s a scene in a food bank that hits hard and, reflecting back a character’s early statement on the virtues of Christianity, you have to wonder how any country or politician that claims to have Christian values would allow such a place to even exist in 2017. And so it must be with older members of the cast. To paraphrase a banner from the Women’s March recently; “I can’t believe I still have to protest about this shit.”

Anders Lustgarten’s The Seven Acts of Mercy is on at the Swan Theatre, in Stratford until 10th February 2017

Chalk and blood – Oppenheimer at the RSC

If you sat down with a large enough piece of paper, some pencils and available time, you could probably map out all the interactions that led you to that very moment you decided to map out those interactions. Everything begins small and leads to something greater. You could trace the moment you decided to leave the house at such and such a time and which train you went for, which job you applied for, which path you chose just like every other day, except you walked quicker that one day and then, by the thing we’ve all agreed to call chance, you found that one person that changed your life. Or that group of people who would influence your thinking and change the whole world. Change it forever.

Oppenheimer - at RSC's Swan Theatre from 15th January - 7th March
Oppenheimer – at RSC’s Swan Theatre from
15th January – 7th March

Writer Tom Morton-Smith’s Oppenheimer, (currently at the RSC’s Swan Theatre from
15th January – 7th March) looks at the consequences of our macro interactions and plots them against the sub-atomic interactions being explored in physics at the beginning (and eventual end) of the Second World War. The play, delves into the psyche of those leading the research towards creation of the first atomic bomb and the people around them.

Oppenheimer doesn’t just chart dates, times and known facts. It wants you to ask yourself, who you would become, given enough pressure and circumstances. If you knew you could stop the death of millions of people on ‘your side’ through the death of some hundreds of thousands on ‘the other side’ would you do it? It’s a bit like the ‘would you kill Hitler’ questions or countless others that form the basis of simple philosophical questions. When it falls to you to make the decision, which way do you fall? And how free of bias and imperfection can you hope to be?

Directed by Angus Jackson, Oppenheimer is as much an opening up of (much previously unravelled) recent history, as it is an exploration of what kind of person does it fall to, to make such a decision to create a weapon. John Heffernan as J. Robert Oppenheimer gives us the full impact of what that decision might do to a man. By the end of the play we feel his suffering and are only returned to our own humanity when the stage dips to darkness.

Oppenheimer - RSC's Swan Theatre from 15th January - 7th March
Oppenheimer – RSC’s Swan Theatre from
15th January – 7th March

The supporting cast of characters is like a who’s who of early Twentieth Century physics, including Richard Feyman, Hans Bethe, Edward Teller and even a snapshot appearance from Einstein himself. Such was the gathering of smartest people down in Los Alamos on the Manhattan project.

In Oppenheimer the man, we also see the changing nature of science in the modern world. As one character has it, all the chalk has been washed away with blood. It’s why, during the play, the floors are marked with calculations, atomic interactions drawn out and enhanced by digital projections. A blackboard constantly set out and written or projected on to. The stage is awash with chalk by the end of the play. It’s all over the cast’s costumes. It’s everywhere. And metaphorically, it’s then washed away. Scientists began to realise that their small band of brothers, tucked away in little understood corners of research, would make a difference to the whole world.

Who would you need to be, to decide to build a weapon that could kill so many people? Can only the perfect make those sorts of decisions? It’s a challenge for anyone to tackle this well worn path, but the creative team give it their best shot. In parts I was reminded of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, (back at the National from 24 June 2014 – 23 May 2015,) with the projected overlays of stage design and that feeling, when you leave the theatre, of having become broader in knowledge and assured that anything, could happen to any of us. In the case of Oppenheimer, though, we’d just need to be a genius. And a human being.