Review: The Seven Acts of Mercy (Swan Theatre)

Anders Lustgarten’s new play follows a retired dock worker and his grandson, and plays over a period of 400 years

The RSC is quite rightly proud of its role in championing new writing alongside its canon of classics. David Edgar’s powerful Written on the Heart and Tom Morton-Smith’s electrifying Oppenheimer spring to mind as vibrant examples of this nurturing of important new plays.

Unfortunately Anders Lustgarten’s commission The Seven Acts of Mercy will do little to enhance the company’s reputation in this area. While tackling a ripe political target – the inequity of government’s social policy – it does so in such a heavy-handed, electioneering way that any force of its underlying message is swamped and ultimately undermined by the sledgehammer mechanics.

Ostensibly, it’s two plays in one. Half the action takes place in 17th Century Naples, where the troubled artist Caravaggio is creating his latest masterpiece, The Seven Acts of Mercy, in a church while hiding from a gang of mobsters out for revenge over his killing of one of their number. The other half plays out in modern-day Bootle, where terminally ill Leon hopes to educate his teenage grandson Mickey in the finer qualities of life by teaching him about art using – you guessed it – Caravaggio’s painting as his mainstay.

Meanwhile, presumably in an attempt to make the parallel stories resonate still further, Leon is hounded by Scouse gangsters determined to oust him from his home as part of a housing scam related to redevelopment funds for the area.

Both stories are problematic, however, not least because none of the characters ever emerges as more than a two-dimensional mouthpiece for a variety of slogans and platitudes. Patrick O’Kane’s Caravaggio is a tantrum-throwing man-child with none of the empathy or compassion the artist purports to display in his work. The use of the painting’s development as a framing device is just as unsubtle, with the seven acts themselves numbered in captions as we go along, just in case we’ve missed the point.

In the present day, Tom Georgeson attempts to imbue the ailing Leon with some kind of humanity in spite of his circumstances but it’s an uphill battle given what he has to work with. TJ Jones comes closest to poignancy as the wide-eyed young Mickey but there’s no escaping an underlying, depressing sense that for Lustgarten working-class life must be inherently relentlessly grim, especially up north.

What’s more surprising given the inclinations of RSC deputy artistic director Erica Whyman, who helms the whole enterprise, is the play’s treatment of women. With one exception, the female characters are ciphers, sidelined and used merely to service the plot. The exception, although feisty and tough in the hands of Allison McKenzie, ends up brutalised and destroyed by the men around her. It’s hard to imagine a more macho, testosterone-driven play.

The sad thing is that there’s an overwhelming feeling of a missed opportunity here. The idea of the parallel stories is sound enough, and any exploration of who decides what art is and how it’s used should be welcomed in these days of increasing private sponsorship in the cultural sector. As in politics, though, the argument is not furthered when the debate is as blunt and lacking in nuance as this.

Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes

The Seven Acts of Mercy runs at The Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, until 10 February 2017.