Reclining Nude with Black Stockings @ Arcola, London

cast list:
Johannes Flaschberger, Simon Harrison, Katie McGuinness, Naomi Sheldon

directed by
Alexander Gilmour

Although Egon Schiele is widely acknowledged as a prime mover in the development of modern art, his brief career was dogged by accusations of pornography and licentiousness.

Reclining Nude with Black Stockings focuses on a trial that the artist faced in Austria in 1912 when he was charged with abducting and raping a thirteen-year old girl.

The accusation is shown to be false, but the fact that he painted her nude, and was found to possess other uncompromising pictures, saw him imprisoned as his genius was mistaken for depravity.
In Snoo Wilsons new play the four actors take on multiple roles as they move about a bare stage that contains just a few props. Schieles mentor Gustav Klimt (Johannes Flaschberger) narrates the action, assuming the role of a Greek chorus that addresses the audience directly. He invites us to judge Schieles guilt or otherwise as the ancient Athenians might have done, warning that although Greece was the birthplace of democracy it also witnessed the death of Socrates.

In this way, the play employs an overtly theatrical style to introduce ideas that could feel unpalatable if explored in a more literal set-up. Schiele was an acutely self-aware man and his language steeped in metaphor, Freudian analysis and Classical references. Even in this context, the actors struggle to make such rich lines as When they started their interrogation my soul became eclipsed feel natural, but what remains a minor problem could have become far more serious had the overall piece striven for greater realism.

There are scenes of real intensity such as when Schieles mistress Walli (Katie McGuinness) offers to be his muse, and when the young Tatiana (Naomi Sheldon) poses nude for him. In these powerful moments, Wilson successfully slips in the odd humorous line that provokes a degree of nervous laughter because of the prevailing atmosphere. Klimt in his Greek chorus guise also serves to effect the mood, the pace and even what happens next on stage by frequently crashing his staff to the ground.

The play also presents Schiele as a multi-faceted figure who, although undoubtedly a genius, is not an entirely sympathetic character. His own sense of worth, coupled with his determination to create a legacy, lead him to appear snobbish, believing that his genius status gives him the right to have a mistress alongside his wife. His wooing of high society also seems at odds with his basic philosophy that one can either produce great art or make money.

There are times when too much is explained by Klimt to make us truly feel for the characters, and the notion of Hitler as a failed artist remains underexplored, although what we do learn is interesting. It is revealed as ironic that Adolf went into politics precisely because he could not achieve what Schiele did in the art world, and thus needed another way to vent his frustrations.

The play also encourages us to reflect on ourselves. We know that we ought to judge Schiele as innocent, but if a parallel situation were to arise today the media would surely attack the artist as the judges did in 1912. Amidst such a barrage of assaults, could we assess the situation as easily as we might in a detached theatre environment? At the end of the ninety minutes I acquitted Schiele in my mind, but knew that in another time and place I might have made him drink the hemlock.

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