"Caravaggio’s painting depicts the seven Catholic corporal works of mercy - what we might call human rights"Caravaggio

Theatre can often be a very passive medium. You sit, you watch, you enjoy. It makes you feel, but it takes a lot to make you continue to feel after the production ends.

Anders Lustgarten’s The Seven Acts of Mercy kept me thinking for months after I saw it in the Christmas vacation. It appears to be Caravaggio’s story - a tortured genius learning compassion in a world severely wanting for it. However, the play cuts between Caravaggio’s world and modern day Liverpool, where decency is also apparently in short supply.

“Four hundred years later, people are depicted suffering as they are deprived of what they need”

The comparisons with the contemporary world shown parallel to Caravaggio’s are striking. There are clear references to our current political culture, more concerned with slickness and soundbites than distressing, pressing realities. There is a particularly biting criticism of life under an austerity regime, with people very like us and the people we know sacrificing their pride to survive.

Caravaggio’s painting depicts the seven Catholic corporal works of mercy - what we might call human rights. Burying the dead, visiting the imprisoned and the sick, sheltering the homeless, clothing the naked and feeding the hungry. In a 17th century world lacking a sophisticated municipal system, these are very immediate concerns.

What Lustgarten demonstrates in his writing is that they continue to be real. Four hundred years later, people are depicted suffering as they are deprived of what they need – but now they suffer exactly because there is an ‘advanced’ administrative system.

"The show cuts between Caravaggio's world and modern day Liverpool"Ellie Kurttz (c) RSC

Lustgarten’s fundamental question is: what is life worth? Is it worth a threat to your values or moral system? Is it worth a growing national debt? By putting us inside the life of a grandfather, Leon, and his preteen grandson Mickey, this confrontation is uncomfortable in the extreme. Watching an old man lose his house as a result of it being sold on – a house he lived in for decades, that he raised his children and grandchildren in – is heart-breaking onstage. Emotional logic is shown to be worthless in a system more concerned, distastefully so, with money.

What is especially striking is that, aside from three politicians and social workers, all of the characters are obviously working-class. They are treated with dismissal and disdain. Lustgarten forcefully shows that they are not inherently undignified. They have had their dignity taken by those posing as their social superiors.

“It might be expected that life had become softer: that we have progressed. Lustgarten’s writing shows that we have not”

TJ Jones’ Mickey is a wonderfully complex child – aggressive as a result of his difficult upbringing, emotionally attached to the father who abandoned him, but fundamentally incredibly kind, and ambitious with his generosity. As we watch Caravaggio paint, we watch Mickey enact the acts of mercy.

His visit to the food bank is especially poignant. We see the shame that ordinary people feel over having to scrape and scramble for the absolute fundamentals of life. Now, in the wake of Jacob Rees-Mogg’s comment on the pride we should feel at increasing use of food banks, this seems an especially thoughtful criticism of a government that can often fail to reflect on the lives of the downtrodden. It is not interested in picking them back up.

"There is an overt viciousness about the world of seventeenth century Naples, where Caravaggio has fled after killing a man in Rome"Ellie Kurttz (c) RSC

There is an overt viciousness about the world of seventeenth century Naples, where Caravaggio has fled after killing a man in Rome. It might be expected that life had become softer: that we have progressed. Lustgarten’s writing shows that we have not. The bad things are just more adeptly hidden, often by the people who are there to protect us.

The overlap between the two worlds was especially well-demonstrated in one, beautiful frame. Patrick O’Kane as Caravaggio stands on his ladder, looking down at Tom Georgeson’s Leon. Both characters dedicated their lives, in different ways, to art – and it got them both nowhere. Compassion cannot be exchanged for kindness, and this difficult lesson took them each a lifetime to learn.

It is a painful play to watch because there is no redemption. Life goes on when people have no houses or food or dignity – and we know it does, because our lives go on while our peers are deprived of these things. Lustgarten’s writing strikes a chord - it shines a light on our frequently wilful ignorance of others’ misfortune because it suits us. It cannot suit us anymore

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