Chiaroscuro. Written and directed by David Atfield . Courtyard Studio. Canberra Theatre Centre. Until November 27.
Inspired by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio's commissioned religious painting "The Raising of Lazarus", David Atfield's latest play Chiaroscuro is a fascinating and riveting account of the imagined relationship between Caravaggio (Mark Salvestro ) and his naked male model Gregorio (Shae Kelly).
Atfield sets his historical drama in Caravaggio's studio in the early years of the 17th century, commonly known as the post-Reformation Baroque period.
Designer Rose Montgomery has set the scene against a backdrop of a heavy red drape.
A clothes line hung with coarse linen garments and a large sheet on which images of Caravaggio's work are subtly projected is strung across the side of the stage.
Fruit and wine conjure an image of still life paintings upon the wooden table and the entire atmospheric setting simply and effectively reveals the artist's studio in Messina.
In a drama as bold as Baroque art, Atfield's preoccupation with the homosexual relationship between his two characters serves as a probing and intriguing entrée into the search for truth.
Lust, love and logic collide in a swirling dialectical of passion and reason as the homeless, streetwise Gregorio lures the artist through the shadows of guilt to the light of confession.
Caravaggio is compelled to admit to the chiaroscuro of a violent past contrasted with the beauty of his art. Model turns inquisitor while the artist struggles to unlock life's dark and hidden truths.
Atfield avoids faithful observance of the period. His language is contemporary.
So too is the music of singer-songwriter Troye Sivan and the inclusion of Losing My Religion by REM. This gives the drama an impulsive and spontaneous force.
There is a visceral impact as powerful as Caravaggio's brush strokes across the canvas.
The intimacy between the characters is played with compulsive honesty made even more believable by the intimacy of the Courtyard Studio.
Atfield directs with a keen eye for an alternative meaning behind Caravaggio's art. His actors blaze with the truth of the moment.
Their performances lend the play historical fascination and thought-provoking debate about homosexuality, art and religion.
Intellect and instinct vie for supremacy as Salvestro's Caravaggio struggles for artistic perfection and Kelly's streetwise Gregorio wields the powerful force of sexual impulse to survive in a harsh and violent world.
Chiaroscuro is more about the vulnerability of human nature than an attempt to portray the brutal and dangerous conditions of the period. Salvestro's Caravaggio is more victim than reputed demon whereas Kelly's animalistic Gregorio is true to himself.
Audiences need to see beyond Gregorio's full frontal nudity, the homo-erotic sex scenes or the prolific use of the expletive to fully appreciate Atfield's continuing preoccupation with queer theatre.
In a play of conflicting contrasts, Atfield's purpose is provocation, both confronting and inviting.
If this production is representative of the standards expected from chosen works in the Canberra Theatre's New Works initiative, then audiences can look forward to more exciting and innovative local theatre.
Chiaroscuro's season was short, but hopefully it may be given a longer season in the future.
Atfield and his cast and creatives probe Caravaggio's haunting depiction of Lazarus's resurrection to reveal a deeper meaning that will linger long after you leave the theatre.
Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.