Arts > The light of Caravaggio

17 November 2016 | by Mark Lawson

The light of Caravaggio


In the current “Beyond Caravaggio” show at the National Gallery in London, the artist’s masterpiece, The Seven Acts of Mercy, is shown only as a photograph. The picture never leaves the church in Naples where it was painted in 1607. A more substantial contemplation of the artwork, though, is available this winter in Stratford with Anders Lustgarten’s new play, The Seven Acts of Mercy.
The play cuts between two timelines. In the seventeenth-century scenes, Caravaggio, working from both live and dead models, is painting his vast and graphic illustration of the acts of charity required of the faithful, including burying the dead, feeding the hungry, and clothing and sheltering the homeless.

In the contemporary plot, Leon, an elderly Liverpudlian council tenant dying in diminishing welfare, is cared for by a grandson, Mickey, to whom he tries to pass on a self-taught love of art. The modern characters inhabit a culture where some merciful works  continue – a food bank nourishes the hungry – but others have been reversed: the local council is selling off its council stock and may make Leon and Mickey homeless.

“We have done a lot of work in rehearsals,” says Lustgarten (pictured below), “on the fundamental difference between charity and compassion. Charity – Caravaggio says in the play – is something that the rich give to the poor to make the rich feel less guilty about the things they have stolen. It’s top down. Compassion is something that involves a human exchange. The power balance is more egalitarian than in charity.”


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