Friday, 13 January 2017

Labouring under the allusion…


Patrick O’Kane (Caravaggio) – photo by Ellie Kurttz © RSC
For too many of us it’s become safer to retreat into our own bubbles, whether in our neighborhoods or college campuses or places of worship or our social media feeds, surrounded by people who look like us and sh are the same political outlook and never challenge our assumptions.
     The rise of naked partisanship, increasing economic and regional stratification, the splintering of our media into a channel for every taste – all this makes this great sorting seem natural, even inevitable. And increasingly we become so secure in our bubbles that we accept only information, whether true or not, that fits our opinions, instead of basing our opinions on the evidence that’s out there.

Barack Obama
I resigned from the Labour Party on Monday night – and then (convinced myself that I) comforted myself by cutting my membership card into itsy-bitsy pieces. Well, it was some form of catharsis, I suppose – if not any true kind of compensation. I had been a full member for many years; and a supporter and voter for even longer; had backed Jeremy Corbyn with joy in my heart… – but was finally floored by the following sentence in the Guardian
Jeremy Corbyn will use his first speech of 2017 to claim that Britain can be better off outside the EU and insist that the Labour party has no principled objection to ending the free movement of European workers in the UK.
I wrote in response that “I cannot support a party that does not support the free movement of people.” To me, the words “no principled objection” just came across as “no principles”; and – as a result of what feels bitterly like betrayal – I now mourn the lack of a truly socialist party whose ethos meshes with my own; and who can represent me, as well, especially, as those many others desperately in need of compassion – those deprived of moral, political and social assistance and validation. (You may call me an idealist. But I’m not the only one. And – truthfully? – being disabled soon knocks pragmatism into you more efficiently than a beating in a back alley for wearing the ‘wrong’ school tie. Or, indeed, a Work Capability Assessment.)

But why am I commencing an RSC review with such a strange, self-centred (and left-centred) tale? Well, not just because I was born and raised on Merseyside – where the play is partly set (specifically Bootle: where my dad taught a whole host of Mickey Carraghers) – although this has undoubtedly coloured my political outlook – but because this exigent need for an organization (or coalition of such) with equality and honesty at its core (and a realistic possibility of government in its grasp) also screams insistently (and rightfully) from those who inhabit the present-day scenes of Anders Lustgarten’s audacious new drama, The Seven Acts of Mercy. And, whilst those cries can be heard far and wide, they are not often willingly listened to; and certainly not readily responded to – the voices of the needy (who see “just about managing” as an unachievable social aspiration) merely echoing back from the mouldering walls of Westminster: never penetrating its windows; nor the ersatz hearts of those that rule us: who care and want for nothing but mastery, and its lardy lubricant, mammon. (“Your kind isn’t welcome here. You’re supposed to feel intimidated.”)

[Does some of this also apply to some of the audience, in some attenuated fashion? (“Because that’s what the privileged are like.”) This may not necessarily be the sort of drama many – initially including its author… – expect to see at the RSC. But if it succeeds in exposing some – “so secure in [their] bubbles” – to realities never before witnessed; if it challenges their assumptions… – and makes an impact: forcing people to rethink their “preconceptions and prejudices”… – then it has also succeeded in reinforcing the purpose of art which it so elucidates. (Next time you espy someone obviously homeless, crouched miserably in the doorway of some boarded-up shop, what will be your reaction? Disdain? Pity? Or a cup of tea and a sandwich…? Will you ask them how they are; how they came to be there – or will you take it as read that they brought it – whatever “it” may be… – upon themselves…?)]


Tom Georgeson (Leon); TJ Jones (Mickey) – photo by Ellie Kurttz © RSC
In theatre, you can entertain, and you can also say something about the world. There’s not another medium like it. You can’t fake it, you can’t commodify it.
Anders Lustgarten
Studying the text – in advance of a captioned performance – I was intrigued by the extremely direct parallels drawn between Mickey Carragher and Michelangelo Merisi [for which my iPhone proffers “Mersey”] da Caravaggio; and therefore the possible correlation of other characters inhabiting the two worlds playwright Lustgarten paints (if you will) so beautifully – aided and abetted, in production, by director Erica Whyman and designer Tom Piper; but especially lighting designer Charles Balfour and video designer Nina Dunn (superheroes, all). I was also captivated by worldly-wise granddad, Trotskyist, Toffeemen sympathizer and ideological aesthete, Leon, sometimes shackled to a wheelchair by illness and end-stage emphysema… – but only “shackled” in the way one is bound to a chariot wilfully hurtling away from Hades. Lustgarten describes the man as “A ruined castle on a hill”; and, although Tom Georgeson captures this aspect to perfection, it is the ex-union leader’s “cantankerous forcefulness” that pierces you to the quick; as well as his obvious deep love and fear for grandson Mickey (an utterly mesmerizing TJ Jones). Both performances are truly sensational: there are no hysterics, only hope and fortitude; and their reality therefore quickly becomes ours.
All works, no matter what or by whom painted, are nothing but bagatelles and childish trifles… unless they are made and painted from life, and there can be nothing… better than to follow nature.
– Caravaggio
The pair ensure that we understand that this is a play about relationships (and therefore love) – relationships between people alive and dead, living and dying; between people and art, people and religion; between people and need, want, greed, necessity… – about the personal as much as it is the political. (“Solidarity. Solidarity under duress, not from some theory but because there’s no other choice.”) And it speaks both to art’s (and love’s) imperative, its indispensability; as much as it does to its inspirational potency – both devoured in its creation, and spewed out by its consumption. That it uses the iconography of the seven corporal works of mercy as its framework is almost incidental – unless you see those works (that labour; the labour required to accomplish them) as political (rather than religious) waypoints on the route to righteousness and some realistic form of vicarious redemption.
The whole play is taking on Caravaggio’s idea that he fights for the people and makes things better through his work. It’s a nice romantic vision, but it’s bullshit, I think.
Anders Lustgarten
But it is Caravaggio’s flawed, overwhelming masterpiece of the same name – humanity writ colossal and candid – that dominates proceedings; is literally at the centre of the action; and which guides that action. (”What’s the fucking point of art without human feeling?”) The work may not absolve its creator, or anyone else (sadly, souls aren’t as easily redeemed as Green Shield Stamps): but it goes a bloody long way to mapping out what is possible – especially when faced with today’s vicious social realities.


Patrick O’Kane (Caravaggio) – photo by Ellie Kurttz © RSC

Maybe not helped by the shock of each scene change, the parallel narratives can occasionally feel contrived. (This is, after all, a play; and my concentration on the rhetoric may have been punctured, now and then, by the presence of captions – which is why I am returning for an unfettered viewing, tonight.) However, the bonds of love which cement the whole thing together are so strong that any machinations remaining visible (however briefly) simply do not matter. And, while there are thus moments of great beauty and tenderness – of silence, of light… – there are also those (essential ones) of savagery and offensiveness (both in action and communication) – of shade…. Nonetheless, the words flow constantly with affection, knowledge, nuance, heart and humour. In the end, therefore, I believe it is the overall effect – the chiaroscuro of language and meaning; the greater truth, perhaps… – which is crucial. (“Let me rest now.”)

There are hints of (or correspondences with) I, Daniel Blake – but the play is none the worse for that. And, anyway, why wouldn’t there be such replication? The scenes in Bootle flawlessly capture the cruel reality of the millions crushed by the blatant falsehoods of austerity – benefits that don’t; housing that doesn’t; an embarrassment of food-banks… – any throwaway accusations of the writing being nothing but “agitation and political propaganda” probably emanating from the mouths of those imposing that punishing reality; or those with their vision kept deliberately blinkered. Mind you, having said that, there’s nothing wrong with a bit of valid agitprop now and then, if it’s targeted correctly, opens eyes, and transforms disdain into a cuppa and a friendly chat. (“What if ‘the people’ don’t want stories about themselves? What if they like shite about the rich and famous?”) For one moment, I could have sworn we were sat in the Everyman, in Liverpool. (And, trust me, that is A Very Good Thing… – especially in Stratford-upon-Avon.)

The only bits that really passed me by were the footballing references in the first, rip-roaring scene after the interval – my Anfield (and Ewood Park) days long gone. And yet the cascades of belly-laughs well surpassed the need to understand the detail… – yet more light emerging from the darkness. And neither did the language – which on paper, is stark – get in the way, or even jolt. It is too based in the necessities of lives hard-lived to be anything other than real.


Allison McKenzie (Lavinia) – photo by Ellie Kurttz © RSC
I see compassion may become a justice, though it be a weakness, I confess, and nearer a vice than a virtue.
– Ben Jonson: Bartholomew Fair
Utilizing the same sterling core company as The Rover and The Two Noble Kinsmen, the acting is, of course, top-notch. Not only Georgeson and Jones, but an almost unrecognizable Gyuri Sarossy: proving his range well beyond those other plays in a rendition, again, of utter perfection. (“I never could create something.”) This is a tough role to play: but Sarossy evokes just enough smarm, vulnerability, cocksureness, weakness, and humanity to ensure that we grow to sympathize, to understand his predicament; to believe him, and in him.
“He was the first painter of life as experienced by the popolaccio, the people of the back streets, les sans-culottes, the lumpenproletariat, the lower orders… Following Caravaggio up to the present day, other painters – Brower, Ostade, Hogarth, Goya, Gericault, Guttuso – have painted pictures of the same social milieu. But all of them – however great – were genre pictures, painted in order to show others how the less fortunate or the more dangerous lived. With Caravaggio, however, it was not a question of presenting scenes but of seeing itself. He does not depict the underworld for others: his vision is one that he shares with it.
– John Berger
Patrick O’Kane as the egotistic Caravaggio is equally remarkable; as is Edmund Kingsley as the Marchese. (“I make no judgment on his character.”) But it is Allison McKenzie – amazing enough in The Rover… – who took my breath away completely: as Lavinia, holding up a mirror to the painter; giving him love where none had been before – a love he cannot understand; in the same way he does not understand the sincere friendship and admiration of his sponsor. Thus is his humanity unlocked – an act of compassion which leads to a final scene where past and present collide; an inevitable impact that found everyone in the Swan leaning in from the blackness, many with tears glistening in the half-light.

Keeping Caravaggio and Mickey on stage during each other’s scenes, as we travelled pell-mell towards that inevitability, was a stroke of genius; and I cannot say often enough how effective and magical Whyman’s directorial decisions always are; how she surrounds herself with talent to match; how transparently she shares her vision across cast, creatives… and audience. (“I’ve got something I’d like to show yer.”) True greatness.

There’ll be more, tomorrow, when I’ve gotten my breath back. All I can say, now, is that this was an evening which gnawed at every single emotion I think I’ve ever possessed; and is on a level with Doctor Faustus… – which is the highest praise I have. Watching paint dry has never been quite so enthralling – nor quite so rewardingly harrowing. Bring it on!

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