“I need more light,” our protagonist Caravaggio says at one point, and it’s fair to say that the 16th century Italian’s use of light and darkness is one of his paintings’ signature features. This new biographical play, though, leaves no doubt that Michele Angelo Merigi da Caravaggio was more a figure of the darkness than the light—passionate in all matters of the flesh, quick to anger and absolutely bursting with self-confidence.
As might be expected, this production plays a lot with light and darkness
It’s a challenge to make such a figure sympathetic, not least when we first meet him—on the run after having killed a man in a brawl—but Alex Marchi just about manages it, not least thanks to those quieter moments of genuine affection seen with his valet Francesco (one of several roles played by Danny Hetherington) and Lena (Dorothy Jones), a prostitute and artistic muse. Given we don’t see any of Caravaggio’s work—his paintings represented by empty picture frames—you do wonder what Richard Unwin’s amusingly camp Cardinal Del Monte gets in return for his patronage and support.
“What you see in the painter you’ll see in the paintings,” we’re told at one point, as we follow Caravaggio from Rome to Naples—where he stays with artistic contemporary Carracci (Thomas Lodge)—and then to Malta, seeking further commissions and membership of the Knights of Malta. However, it appears that death and violence inevitably followed behind him, as he attempts to build up a sufficiently important artistic reputation to aid in his receiving a pardon from the Pope. He isn’t alone in having “a taste for slaughter and martyrdom,” though; and, it’s suggested here, that led to his death.
As might be expected, this production plays a lot with light and darkness; too much darkness, perhaps, while the near-blinding of some audience members is presumably one of the unintended consequence of having to share a common lighting rig in a multi-show venue. Caravaggio's greatest anguish was that he believed God had given him the gift “to see”, but he couldn’t understand why; there’s surely no reason for a blinded audience to ask the same question.