Shae Kelly and Mark Salvestro in Chiaroscuro photo by Sam Kennedy-HineChiaroscuro is the inaugural presentation by the Canberra Theatre Centre in its New Works Development Program which was announced earlier in the year. This program is designed to support the creation and presentation of new performance work from Canberra Artists.

As one of the first beneficiaries of this program, Canberra playwright, David Atfield, was granted a four-week rehearsal and presentation residency to develop his play, Chiaroscuro. The residency involved two weeks in the rehearsal room, one week for technical rehearsals and five performances.

The residency also included all venue and associated costs, including technical, box office and front-of-house staff, as well as artist fees for up to four artists, with the centre funding all marketing and publicity for the presentation. Originally programmed for presentation in August, Covid restrictions delayed the premiere of Chiaroscuro until this month.

One of Canberra’s most experienced playwrights; Atfield is a NIDA graduate who had studied drama previously at UNSW and acting at the Ensemble. His play Lovely Louise, about silent-film star Louise Lovely, was selected for the 1998 Australian National Playwrights Conference.

Since then he has written and directed several plays, mainly gay themed, including Pink Triangles, Scandalous Boy and Exclusion.

In a similar vein, Chiaroscuro is inspired by Atfield’s intense reaction to the Caravaggio painting, The Raising of Lazarus which he encountered some years ago during a visit to Messina in Sicily.

The play concerns an imaginary relationship between the artist Caravaggio (Mark Salvestro), and a male prostitute Gregorio (Shae Kelly), hired by Caravaggio as the model for the figure of Lazarus in his painting.

As the painting progresses, so does the relationship between Caravaggio and Gregorio, who challenge each other with probing questions about their religious beliefs and sexuality.

“You smell like someone who’s been dead for four days, but it was more than your smell that attracted me to you” Caravaggio informs Gregorio, early in the play, in response to Gregorio’s query as to why Caravaggio chose him as his model for Lazarus.

Atfield’s production and direction is uncompromising, confronting and occasionally frustratingly ambiguous.  he dialogue often seems unnecessarily crude with the actors speaking with Australian accents, initially rough and streetwise for Gregorio, more cultured for Caravaggio.

As the play progresses however, Gregorio’s language changes as his questions and responses become more erudite, until the final denouement when he exits unexpectedly, leaving the audience to wonder whether there was not more to Gregorio originally presented.

Both the actors acquit themselves well in challenging roles. Mark Salvestro is particularly effective in capturing Caravaggio’s increasing anguish as he wrestles with the conflicts between his religious beliefs and his sexuality.

Remarkably unselfconscious, considering he is required to spend almost the entire play on stage naked, Shae Kelly gives a brave and convincing performance as the streetwise young prostitute, Gregorio.

Although Rose Montgomery’s setting makes effective use of the limited space, and is successful in suggesting the disarray of an artist’s studio, her lack of attention to detail was jarring.

As items such as Caravaggio’s paint brush, canvas and easel, wine bottle stopper, and underpants are modern, perhaps this ambiguity was intended. If so, it was distracting.

Nor was it helped by Gillian Schwab’s too bright lighting design, which given that the word used for the title of the play, chiaroscuro, describes the technique famously used by Caravaggio in his treatment of contrasting light and shadow, too often missed the opportunities provided by the setting to capture the theatricality of Caravaggio’s painting.

These reservations aside, Chiaroscuro is an ambitious, thought-provoking and entertaining play by David Atfield and an auspicious inaugural presentation for the Canberra Theatre Centre’s New Works Development Program.

The Courtyard Studio – Canberra Theatre Centre, Civic Square, London Circuit, Canberra
Performance: Thursday 25 November 2021
Season continues to 28 November 2021
Information and Bookings:

Image: Shae Kelly and Mark Salvestro in Chiaroscuro – photo by Sam Kennedy-Hine

Review: Bill Stephens OAM