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As randomly as these things recur, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio is out and about around town again this summer. The exhibition Beyond Caravaggio is currently a fixture at the Scottish National Gallery and gallery-goers can in a few short steps become theatre-goers with this new production by Theatre Dept., “Caravaggio: Between the Darkness.” The venue is the Space on the Mile; the play is written and directed by Thomas Butler.

Beyond Caravaggio
almost entirely comprises paintings from the Caravaggisti, a loose school of later subscribers to Caravaggio’s method. As I had noted in my original review, “this exhibition is more about Caravaggio than by him. There is ten times more Beyond than there is Caravaggio.” This absence is more natural in the theatre, where they can hardly bring out every painting that they refer to. Caravaggio is still characteristically elusive in Theatre Dept.’s production and no doubt he has confounded another attempt to nail him down. He is physically present, I hasten to add, and set before us with suitable braggadocio by Alex Marchi. But I am not sure that this Caravaggio really cuts through the Gordian knot. Consumers of Caravaggio such as I demand everything – both the earnest art and the brawling, tearaway irresponsibility. Producers of Caravaggio have to try to realistically account for this contradiction without the faintest access to the original subject.

So what do we have here? Theatre Dept.’s play initially bears an inadvisable resemblance to a student flatshare comedy, with Caravaggio being fussed over by a lively and squabbling domestic retinue. There is the kind of bitchy dialogue that is native to this genre (“Caravaggio, you look and smell like a donkey’s rectum”). When his rival Annibale Carracci (Thomas Lodge) is added, the play suddenly picks up a little of the feel of Peter Shaffer’s “Amadeus” (1979). Like Shaffer’s Salieri, Carracci is the inferior artist, who looks guilty and perplexed whenever Caravaggio is on stage. Next, when the splendidly sinister Sire of Malta, Alof de Wignacourt (Michal Nowak), is added, there is the promise of horror, but it soon fades and passes. Marchi’s Caravaggio henceforth stumbles on towards his early death, interrupting his wild living to issue pointed and rather too explanatory statements about his art. He is the conventional visionary and everybody around him is conventionally a passive spectator.

The details are a bit hit-and-miss. There is a good, sharp moment of violence that makes the audience jump. The poky stage and the chiaroscuro lighting successfully replicate the look of any Caravaggio configuration. The Italian accents are apparently optional amongst the cast – Caravaggio’s is at first lazy but then it warms up like an ancient light bulb. Italian is Marchi’s mother tongue but it seems to take him a while to locate the accent again. He is very good when drunk. His portrayal works so well because it trades in the authentic Latin alpha male, the charming slob who is always followed around by silent women clearing away coffee cups. Elsewhere, however, Nowak’s riveting performance is inexplicably spoiled when de Wignacourt glances for the first time at his portrait and briskly intones, “you have… captured my soul.” This should be a crucial scene but it is like a footballer has missed a clear shot at the goal.

Like everybody else, Theatre Dept. have a good stab at Caravaggio but they go askew. Caravaggio had devoted his life to realism, to gushing blood and unsentimentality, and yet he is not wholly repaid in his own coinage.

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