Amongst the many news stories there have been about Donald Trump and Mike Pence since their election in November one perhaps seemingly un-political is the news that Vice-President Elect Pence visited Hamilton the musical on Broadway. At the end of the show the cast members directly addressed Pence, expressing their worry and concern that his and Donald Trump’s administration will not protect them – the members of society so many seem keen to ignore, despite their numbers. While the cast of Hamilton received many wonderful remarks in response to their message, there were nevertheless those voices dismissing the theatre as a place for conversation and social criticism.
However, theatre is an extremely important asset to us in times like this. A political asset, even. One that can show us the flaws in our society that we are blind to in our own lives. Theatre forces you to watch, to listen and hopefully to understand. It is a chance to truly learn and to perhaps change, if the theatre is successful in its purpose.
One such play at the moment, which is striving to comment upon and change our society, is Anders Lustgarten’s new play for the RSC ‘The Seven Acts of Mercy’.
The play is set half in 17th century Naples and half in modern day Bootle. In the former we watch as the exile Caravaggio works on what becomes a masterpiece depicting the Seven Acts of Mercy; his own attempt at redemption for a murder he committed in Rome. Then flip to Bootle, where Leon, a dying ex-union leader is trying to instill virtues to live by on his grandson Mickey, through the work of Caravaggio, amongst other painters. At the same time, they are also fighting eviction and the bedroom tax and a government that seems more to be against them.
Lustgarten’s new play is a masterpiece of storytelling that brilliantly interweaves the past with the present. It does what all good theatre should do – it forces you to think. Just as the cast of Hamilton tried to implore their Vice-President elect to think. As a painter Caravaggio focuses not on the nobles of society but of those whose story is never told. The prostitutes and the beggars and the supposed filth of society that most people would rather ignore. Despite being set in 17th century Italy the issues that abound in Caravaggio’s society still feel extremely relevant today. This then is why the split narrative of the play works so well as, despite being split across the centuries, the issues and themes are still the same and we are still struggling against the same problems.
WhatsOnStage gave the show only two stars, dismissing the characters as ‘two-dimensional mouthpieces’ and felt the show was too much of a ‘macho-testosterone driven-play’. They felt disappointed in the female characters in the show – that they were there only to fuel the political message. The only one they felt slightly outgrew this model was Lavinia. Lavinia is a 17th century whore who befriends Caravaggio because she is a painter. However, as she is a woman she cannot make any money from her art. Allison McKenzie brilliantly brings Lavinia to life, instilling her with all the passion and angst and pain needed to portray such a complex character. By the end of the show Lavinia has been destroyed by the men around her; whether their aims were for good or for bad, the results were always the same. WhatsOnStage’s again has a problem with this, as they feel Lavinia ultimately was only there simply to fuel Caravaggio’s ‘man pain’. To some extent, this is undeniably true. However, interestingly the WhatsOnStage review was written by a man. The criticism undeniably had good intentions – the critic wanted more meaningful female roles for the actresses to tackle. However, the character of Lavinia is one that will resonate with all women and is still relevant today. To dismiss Lavinia’s story arc is to pretend that women have never been used by men for nothing more than to further their own goals. Did Hilary Clinton not just lose the election to a much less capable and far less intelligent opponent simply because he was a man? In the narrative of Trump’s rise to presidency, what will Clinton be except an obstacle to fuel Trump’s campaign and to show how he bravely overcame all opposition? There might be centuries between Lavinia and Clinton, but the end result of both their stories is that they are merely plot devices to a man’s.
Lustgarten has described his play as ‘a story about the fight for human decency and acknowledgement’. For me, he undoubtedly achieved this through his diverse range of characters. Perhaps Lustgarten’s view of working class life is too bleak and too dour, but it is a view that is rarely portrayed so vividly for all to see and for that I applaud him. In times such as this we cannot dismiss storytelling as simple fantasy, however many voices want us to. Theatre has a power that many other forms of media lack. It draws you in and for the length of its performance you live the lives of those characters. You experience their highs and their lows and you sympathise with them. You really feel for them in a way a written article you know was typed up comfortably, probably in an office, cannot make you feel.
Theatre is vital to our society and we cannot dismiss it merely as a form of entertainment. Whether you want to see it or not there are social commentaries in so many different shows – what is Wicked if not a comment on race, what is Fiddler on the Roof if not a comment on the persecution of religious minorities? Theatre is so brilliant at what it does because it transports us out of our own world but still provides us with valuable messages and lessons. And so to the cast of Hamilton I thank you for speaking out for us and making sure our voices are heard, whether they want to listen or not. And to Anders Lustgarten I thank you for a brilliant piece of new theatre which I would advise everyone to go and see. Whether you like it or not, at least the message will be heard. And then maybe, just maybe, we can start seeing some changes.