Caravaggio: Exile and Death, The Place, London

His life was full of drama, but it's the art as much as the painter that inspires this absorbing show
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The Independent Culture

He brawled constantly, rowed with patrons, killed a man and fled justice after the Pope, no less, signed his death warrant. His was a life, you might say, not short of colour.

Only last year a new layer of intrigue was added when bones excavated in Tuscany, dated to a 38-year-old who died in 1610 and DNA-matched to people with the surname Caravaggio, were shown to contain levels of lead high enough to have driven the painter mad and helped finish him off.

All of which makes Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio a promising subject for a feature film but a bit of a handful for dance. How, in contemporary movement, to suggest the act of painting without cumbersome props or dull stasis? How, in a production intended to tour small stages, to suggest the feral, pox-ridden streetlife that seethed behind the biblical masterpieces?

Director-choreographer Darshan Singh Bhuller finds a way by dint of sheer invention, drawing on digital graphics and puppetry to delineate events as diverse as the Venice carnival and the disputed game of royal tennis that capped the painter's grisly career of personal violence. Almost the only thing you don't see in Caravaggio: Exile and Death is the act of painting, though you lose count of the moments when a particular arrangement of bodies, drapery and lighting (John B Read) triggers sudden recognition: the intrusive lunge of Doubting Thomas as he puts his index finger to his master's rib; the drooping mourners around the corpse from Death of the Virgin; even the near-impossible David with the Head of Goliath, suggested as Caravaggio (embodied by burly, bearded Lee Clayden) wrestles dangerously with his sword-wielding rent-boy model, repeatedly crouching beneath the boy's outstretched hand to force the pose. The implication is that the painter didn't always explain his motives to his models.

Stunning video graphics (by KMA) create the settings: scrolling acres of chequered marble floors and cloistered archways, vistas of Venetian glass chandeliers, a river Tiber that magically transforms into a downpour. The church – both scourge and life-giver to Caravaggio – is represented by a grimly hysterical cardinal cavorting within a series of heavy gilt picture frames, suggesting that the Catholic hierarchy was just as squalid in its dealings as the painter they could neither live with nor without.

All this is engrossing, but more purely enjoyable are the rumbustious scenes in which Bhuller's chorus of six street-walkers and vagrants seize life by the scruff of the neck, romping in unison to a joyously anachronistic playlist that ranges from Neapolitan banda music to wild, animalistic drumming. This potent little piece really ought to get a wider showing.

Buxton Opera House (0845 127 2190), Tuesday

Dance Choice

There's never been a better time to sample ballet at Covent Garden as outgoing director Monica Mason runs through her favourite works. Next up is a mixed bill with Ashton's Enigma Variations – Elgar's Edwardian friends and family brought to life – alongside Gloria, a testament to the losses of the First World War (from Sat).