Following The Tempest, I moved to the Swan Theatre for a performance of the RSC’s newest play, The Seven Acts of Mercy. Written by Anders Lustgarten, it is named after Caravaggio’s 1616 painting and is set both at the time of the work’s creation and in 2016 Bootle, where a young boy tries to put his art-loving grandfather’s compassionate principles into practice by performing seven “acts of mercy” of his own.
Intelligent and engaging, the play is surprisingly easy to follow despite the frequent changes in period. In 1616, we witness the deeply troubled Caravaggio’s creation of the seminal painting: Patrick O’Kane is entirely convincing as the foul-mouthed radical who uses whores, corpses and his (male) lovers as models for his work and Allison McKenzie is superb as Lavinia, one of those whores who harbours artistic ambitions of her own. As Caravaggio struggles to complete his work while being on the run from those seeking revenge for a murder he has committed, I began to wish that the whole play was set in 1616, so I could explore his life in more depth.
The modern part of the play is not without its merits: T.J. Jones gives a superb performance as the young boy Mickey, while Tom Georgeson is excellent as his grandad Leon, who also has some of the best dialogue: I particularly liked his comparisons of football teams to political parties, funny even to someone like me who is not remotely interested in football. However, for some reason I found these aspects of the play less engaging and the political points made, while I was in complete agreement with them, were put forward in a way that was, in my opinion, too blunt and unsophisticated for a theatre piece.
Despite my criticisms, I found this a worthwhile play, and it made a good companion piece with The Tempest: both plays are on some level about redemption and I thought they went well together, a thoughtful pairing for a winter day.