The Seven Acts of Mercy
RSC Swan Theatre
It starts with a loud, angry, crude outburst and, to be honest, this production rarely drops below an all-out shouting match throughout its long course.
Low people producing high art we’ve seen before; likewise earthy folk whose minds dwell on much more lofty thought. Juxtaposed here we’re invited to tease out the similarities between the search for existential truth in Caravaggio’s Naples and the meaning of generational class struggles in a Liverpool straight out of Brookside via Bread and the Blackstuff.
It’s a broad canvas and one which ultimately leaves the viewer the bulk of the work to do.
Seven Acts of Mercy there may well have been, but among the two relentless acts of conflict and confrontation they were well and truly lost.
In Anders Lustgarten’s sprawling patchwork script father rows with son, painter rows with model, Everton row with Liverpool, the needy row with those trying to help them and so it goes on. And on and on. And at a shade under three hours all-in that’s a lot of face-reddening, neck-bursting, ear-bashing din to put up with.
Amid all the shouting there are a number of decent performances which stand out.
TJ Jones is a young actor we may well hear more of. As the younger generation trying to make sense of what all the finger-pointing is about, he shows humour, compassion and – bizarrely – a much better command of the incessant swearing than most of the rest of the cast.
Leon Lopez and Patrick Knowles turn in a great double act as two constantly bickering, slightly self-aware gangland enforcers. Sharper lines and the chance to play off one another give their scenes the lighter tones missing elsewhere in the play.
Allison McKenzie also deserves a mention for a delightfully nuanced portrayal of that RSC stalwart the tart with both brain and heart. The shocking fate which befalls her is one of the truly moving moments in the whole production.
Credit too must go to Tom Piper’s imaginative staging which allows the artist’s painstaking work to appear piece by piece. Neon lights above and a couple of ladders offer the only chance to lift the action above carpet level.
Elsewhere unsteady lines, poor delivery, wayward accents and cliched posturing lets the good work down. As does any directorial hand in trying to break up the monotony of the arguments or trim their excessive length.
This is a vast and brave play in terms of its scope. It has a lot to say about art, poverty, aspiration, love and violence. It is just such a shame that the script chooses so narrow a colour palette. with which to say it.
The Seven Acts of Mercy runs until February 10. Visit www.rsc.org.uk for details.