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