The Seven Acts of Mercy

by Anders Lustgarten

189th Production. The crux of the play deals with the necessity of compassion in a world in which it is in short supply. But, as Lustgarten says in his Introduction to the play, “compassion is not an easy thing. It has consequences. It opens up vulnerability. It opens up hope, which is another side of the same thing.”

The seven acts of mercy are: 1. To feed the hungry. 2. To give water to the thirsty. 3. To clothe the naked. 4. To shelter the homeless. 5. To visit the sick. 6. To visit the imprisoned. 7. To bury the dead This was the subject of Caravaggio’s painting, from which Lustgarten takes his title. Caravaggio painted it in the Pio Monte in Naples, having fled Rome after killing a man in 1606. It is a painting, therefore, born of violence in a violent world and yet that speaks of compassion.

This full-length play, first produced by the RSC in 2016, switches back and forth between Caravaggio’s life in seventeenth century Naples and present day Bootle near Liverpool. Both cities have a history, the hubs of empire, with people coming in and out, places of energy and violence, juxtaposing poverty and wealth. Having fled to Naples, Caravaggio battles to create art that speaks to the dispossessed.

In the present day, Leon, living in a community which is disintegrating due to economic deprivation, tries to teach his grandchild, Mickey, about compassion, tragedy and the value of art, through his favourite painting, the Seven Acts of Mercy. Leon is dying and knows he has little time left. These scenes follow Mickey’s attempts to recreate the seven acts of mercy with a camera phone as a gift to his granddad. This brings Mickey to the realization that: “You have to be tough to be kind. That’s what I’ve learned from you, Granddad. Tough and fearless and strong. So that’s what I’m going to be.”

This is in danger of all sounding very worthy. However, it is an earthy, funny and gutsy play, with even a passing discourse on football!

I would like to represent the Caravaggio painting in the style of the piece. So I would be looking for lighting that can give us a feel of chiaroscuro, shadowy, uplit. For music, I would look to use polyphonic music, that resonance of the voices creating a human soundtrack. I would like to mirror the paintings also in the costume palette, rich browns, reds, oranges etc.

As a set, my concept is of a triptych, a three-sided altar-piece, but made out of municipal windows, doorframes, scaffolding to pick up the theme of housing. I would like this to be strong enough that actors could potentially climb the scaffolding and use it. I would have a stepped up dais at the back so we can create different levels. Minimal furniture and props. The action can spill out from this setting into the audience as the characters of Caravaggio’s paintings seem to spill out from their frame.

To represent the painting, I would like to try recreating it with my actors as a tableau, as if forming in Caravaggio’s head as he sleeps. We could then look at building Mickey’s version with the modern-day characters at the end. We may also look at using projections to display the paintings mentioned and then the individual photos.

I am looking to use some workshop processes to help with characterization and to explore the themes, key scenes etc and also to build a sense of ensemble from what is a big cast. I would also expect to begin each rehearsal and performance with a quick physical and vocal warm-up.

The piece has a large cast, male and female, all ages. There could be doubling.

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Caravaggio - Graham Collier

The painter, a foul-mouthed, violent, creative force of nature

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Marchese di Villa - Mark Humble

The Marchese di Villa is one of the founders of the church, a widower. He is the one who has asked Caravaggio to come down

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Lavinia - Nancy Lund

A prostitute in Naples. Not young, forceful, she’s seen a lot. She is also a painter in her own right and wants to learn

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Vincenzo - Thomas Jacobs

Young and pretty, turns out to be an assassin sent from Rome

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Leon - Wally Walters

Mid 70’s, retired trade union man, auto-didact, “a ruined castle on a hill”. He is terminally ill.

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Mickey - Dan Cuckow

Leon’s grandson, both naïve and an old soul, a schoolkid

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Sandra - Enid Gayle

Middle-aged woman who runs the food bank

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Damian - Ian Creese

The man with no coat

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Jennifer - Anna Beuden

Young woman at the food bank

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Danny and Jimmy - Ben Williamson

Danny is Jennifer’s special needs brother Jimmy is an unlucky gambler

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Emily - Julia Stevens

Politician, smart, assertive – she is not from Liverpool

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Lee - Neil James

Leon’s son, Mickey’s father “there is something of the Joey Barton about him – a swagger and combativeness belying a deep and well-meaning insecurity”. He returns like the prodigal son after a long absence in Spain and seems to embody everything Leon fights against.

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Donna - Linda Russell

A council officer

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Karen - Georgina Sandford

Jimmy’s girl

Prime

Local heavymob – the clever one

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Liam “Razor” Sharp - Tom Keating

Prime’s partner, anything but sharp

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Director - Caroline Ross

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Stage Manager - Liz Thomas

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Lighting - Nigel Greenaway

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Sound - Ian Santry

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Wardrobe - Sarah Slater

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Assistant Director - Enid Gayle