“It is possible as an artist to be involved with more than one person”
Reclining Nude with Black Stockings marks Snoo Wilson’s first new play in the UK since 1999 and opens at the tiny Studio 2 at East London’s Arcola Theatre. It looks at the life and career of Expressionist painter Egon Schiele, a controversial figure known for his nude and erotic images who stood trial for seducing his 13 year old model. We see his relationship with Gustav Klimt, his key mentor who gives him one of his ex-lovers as a muse, Walli, as he fights to make his art whilst the spectre of the First World War looms on the horizon.
From what is an interesting set-up, the play ultimately frustrates and disappoints. The plot makes no attempts to really delve into the motivations or the artistic drive behind Schiele, the way he worked and the choices he made, instead just rushing through the story of his career in a series of flat scenes. There’s a missed opportunity to strongly evoke the time and place, Vienna on the cusp of the First World War, I didn’t feel enough was done to establish this, but then the introduction of a failed artist by the name of Adolf Hitler by painting a moustache on an artist’s model felt like a huge step in the wrong direction.
It is presented to us by Klimt who narrates the story, but in a most bizarre way, he’s outside of time and space as we know it, constantly addressing us as Athenians, but he’s also part of the story, wandering around with a staff he keeps banging on the ground. It is a strangely alienating device and one which does not aid the play at all. It results in too much self-referential commentary and mentions of things like cyberspace which just stick out like a sore thumb.
This is then exacerbated by Johannes Flaschberger’s larger-than-life performance as Klimt, and the narrator, and the judge, and a few others besides. He booms his way through each with little shade or nuance and there was a shocking number of line flubs and in the tiny unforgiving space of the Arcola 2, there’s nowhere to hide. Simon Harrison’s Schiele is an unlikely looking artist but crucially one never feels any emotional connection with the character and Harrison struggles to overcome that, there’s no passion here only shouting.
Naomi Sheldon offers up an impressive stage debut given how much she has to cover here, a large number of supporting roles and gamely disrobing to become the model for the titular painting. And Katie McGuinness managed to extricate as much feeling as possible from her under-written role as Walli, his muse.
With its unfussy design dominated by its large Klimt print, at least it flowed pretty well and running at just under 90 minutes, it is over fairly soon. But this is small comfort on what unfortunately proved to be a very uncomfortable and misguided night at the theatre.