Reclining Nude with Black Stockings

Snoo Wilson
Arcola Theatre

Egon Schiele(1890-1918), Nude, 1910 / Graphische Sammlung Albertina, Vienna, Austria/ The Bridgeman Art Library

In a rare return to the theatre, Snoo Wilson attempts, in Reclining Nude with Black Stockings, to paint a portrait of Egon Schiele, played by Simon Harrison. He was apparently a man who wanted to be remembered by posterity and, though he never knew it, succeeded.

Strangely, the artist's story is narrated by his deceased mentor, Johannes Flaschberger as Gustav Klimt, who for reasons that are not terribly clear, lectures us as "Athenians".

That is far from the only anachronism, as the language is at times modern and authorial licence allows Klimt and Wilson to prefigure the horrors to be perpetrated by Adolf Hitler, a generation after the deaths of most of the characters in this play during the post Great War flu epidemic.

The tone is playful throughout, which some might find hard to take given the subject matter. The key scenes relate a court case that has much in common with that of Oscar Wilde.

In this case, the setting is Vienna and the supposed victims were underaged and female but otherwise the unworldly artist's refusal to operate within societal norms has the same result of self-condemnation.

For 90 minutes, the text veers between reality and fantasy as Schiele defies convention in search of art and beauty. While Katie McGuinness playing Walli, his muse/lover supplied by Klimt, desperately attempts to keep him on the straight and narrow and protects him in court, the great man is no help to himself. Indeed, his lack of empathy with the authorities is hard to accept, as he wilfully makes his own case indefensible before inexplicably being released.

The key accusation is that he raped (and worse) Tatiana, a very knowing 13-year-old eccentric Naval Officer's daughter, played by Naomi Sheldon. The truth appears to be that he did no more than draw and paint her but that is still enough to lead to prison.

Once he is back in artistic harness, Schiele's thanks to Walli consist in ditching her for a pair of sisters who believe that they have a vocation and are planning to enter a nunnery but are quickly transformed into wife and lover respectively.

Egon Schiele was clearly a very complex kind of genius who died at only 28. With Snoo Wilson's tendency to favour high flown language, sometimes at the expense of meaning, the view that we take away might be as impressionistic as some of the paintings that have made these artists famous.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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