“You fucking twat!” Possibly the most radical opening line that I’ve ever heard in the normally conservative Royal Shakespeare Company’s Swan Theatre.
Provocative playwright Anders Lustgarten has ventured north from the left-wing London theatrical enclave that normally stages his work to see his latest and most ambitious project open at one of the great bastions of the Modern Establishment. Whether the Establishment has got over the shock remains to be seen.
It is a long time since The RSC explored its rebellious roots when it nurtured Britain’s original “angry young men” of theatre back in the 1950s and ’60s. It later went on to play safe, becoming soft and cosy, and attracting largely privileged, white, middle-class audiences expecting a traditional Shakespeare or Restoration romp.
But the controversial, political and influential, The Seven Acts of Mercy, has the potential to be one of those groundbreaking and landmark plays that will be talked about for years to come.
Brilliantly conceived, superbly acted and skilfully constructed it even had the power to move an old Surrey Tory like me. You may argue with Lustgarten’s beliefs but it is impossible to fault him on his research.
His is one of the loudest and most incendiary voices working in British modern theatre, demanding to be heard with every controversial line. There is a fury sweeping through his plays that is a battle-cry on behalf of the masses, the poor, the dispossessed and the vulnerable.
And that rage fuels his work, whether he is railing against drone attacks, atrocities abroad, racism, austerity or any amount of government policy.
Nudity, swearing – including frequent use of the C word – and violence, Mercy isn’t for the faint-hearted. If the writer had set out to shock and provoke debate then he succeeds, quite spectacularly.
It is a blistering fireball of a play that uses the canvas of 17th century maverick Italian painter Caravaggio to attack present day housing policies as seen through the eyes of Bootle’s struggling working classes.
The connection between the intense, firebrand baroque artist from more than 400 years ago and Liverpool’s modern-day poor may not seem immediately obvious but both themes highlight mankind’s flaws and imperfections, and question humanity’s faith and compassion.
Erica Whyman directs with the same bold brushstrokes as her dramatist and it’s a complicated play to stage. One strand follows Caravaggio’s commission, in 1606, from Edmund Kingsley’s noble Marchese, to paint an illustration of The Seven Acts of Mercy.
In the other we watch the last weeks in the life of dying ex-docker Leon Carragher who uses a book containing pictures of history’s great artworks to try and give his teenage grandson, Mickey, some sort of moral compass.
Both stories could equally stand alone as stunning, vibrant plays. Their juxtaposition is remarkably well achieved, creating an enthralling and intense masterpiece that lingers in the mind long after the applause has died.
Patrick O’Kane’s passionate turn as the tortured Caravaggio is, in itself, a work of art. Occasionally, in moments of ferocious intensity, his strong Irish accent creeps into the Liverpool voice being used for the role but, overall, he gives a seismic performance.
Caravaggio spends the entire production in an elevated, fevered, state, applying the same master strokes to his canvas as he does to his daily life.
Swaggering, brutish, enjoying drinking and fighting as much as work, Caravaggio is a painter of the people who explores, through his canvases, man’s humanity. A familiar theme of decapitation reappears, he uses life models from the streets and he pours his life’s blood, literally on occasions, into every brushstroke.
To him his paintings are a political statement. He’s making a point in the only way he knows how.
Kane’s brilliantly played interaction with the fiery prostitute and artist, Lavinia (Allison McKenzie giving a bold and animated performance, aided by an intimidating Scots accent) highlights both his own insecurity and her inability to fight the time’s sexual inequality.
In modern day Bootle Tom Georgeson’s Leon is terrified of leaving his young grandson ill equipped to face life. He tries to teach him about art and what the paintings signify.
The young lad (a stunning turn by newcomer TJ Jones), abandoned by his feckless dad – Leon’s son Lee (Gyuri Sarossy) – sets out to recreate his own Seven Acts of Mercy, taking photos with his phone.
We’re back in the heart of 1960s kitchen sink dramas when Lee turns up and is found to be involved in a housing scam that will see his own father turned out onto the streets.
Tom Georgeson gives an extraordinarily powerful and compelling performance, as only he knows how, as a pensioner dispensing, and receiving, tough love from his family. In one scene he uses football as an analogy for our political parties and it is both extremely clever and hilariously funny.
Leon Lopez and Patrick Knowles, are amusing as a pair of enforcers who appear to have stepped straight out of Pulp Fiction with their chats about designer clothes, food and movies in-between torturing and beating up their victims.
Edmund Kinglsey’s Marchese, one of the few Neopolitan gentry to believe in Caravaggio, gives a hugely watchable performance, even though he appears to have escaped from The RSC’s Tempest running next door in the main house. Dressed in Shakespearean finery his character is at odds with everyone else in the entire production.
The Seven Acts of Mercy runs in the Swan Theatre until February 10.
The Seven Acts of Mercy
Brilliantly conceived, superbly acted and skilfully constructed, provocative playwright Anders Lustgarten creates a powerful work of art with The Seven Acts of Mercy.