Egon Shiele (1890- 1918) was a figurative artist who is probably best known for his self-portraits, explicit nudes and the intensity of his work. In his own time, Shielie's work was regarded by some as being pornographic, erotic and disturbing. But Shiele's work is still immensely popular, and his paintings and drawings can command huge prices – a recent sale valued one of his pieces at £12m.
Snoo Wilson's biographical play takes us on a brief, but surprisingly detailed journey which is almost as intense as Shiele's work. Short plays such as this can often leave you desperate for more, but Snoo Wilson covers an immense amount of ground in a very short time.
The title tells you much about the play's orientation and focus. In 1912, Shiele was accused of seducing a minor, and served a number of days in gaol before being acquitted of the initial charge. But he was found guilt of the lesser charge of displaying erotic drawings in a place that was accessible to minors. The plot revolves around this period of Shiele's life, though we also see flashbacks of other times and incidents which allow us to understand more about the artist and his work.
A first-class cast of four is led by Johannes Flaschberger who plays Gustav Klimt, another well-known artist and Shiele's mentor. But it's as a Greek that he begins the play, urging us to take on the role of Athenians and judge Shiele, rather in the same way that Socrates was judged when accused of corrupting youth. Mr Flaschberger's slight accent can easily double for both German and Greek characters, and it also has a charming warmth to it which is at once authoritative and reassuring. And he exudes a considerable amount of humour, particularly when he's talking about 'his art' influencing all our daily lives, including our shower curtains. Simon Harrison's Shiele is a moody, self-obsessed character who also has something of the lost about him. With hair standing almost on end, there's a clear reference to Shiele's self-portraits, but it also defines a person who is a kind of oddity, one perhaps who feels outside the mainstream. Katie McGuinness (Walli) and Naomi Sheldon (Tatiana) play Shiele's models. Both are not only very attractive – ensuring we see why Shiele might have been attracted to painting young women – but also have immense talent. Ms McGuinness is the more practical and responsible, while Ms Sheldon's Tatiana is a young girl who, though naïve, already knows the power of seductive charm.
Alexander Gilmour's direction is elegantly distinctive. He uses the small space to great effect, and the piece is excellently paced. There's a real sense of atmosphere created in the play, partly due to the nature of the direction, but it's also helped by Marialena Kapotopoulou's thoughtful design, and commendable sound (Tim Digby-Bell) and lighting effects (Alex Wardle).
And what do we learn of Shiele? Well, in Snoo Wilson's words, Shiele says “My ego feels like a constipated dragon”. A phrase to ponder if ever there was one. Roughly translated, I think that means Shiele regarded himself as being something very different and extraordinary, yet unable to quite function the way he would have liked. There's also more than a hint in that phrase of something frightening, something monstrous perhaps. It's a neat turn of phrase and I think a legitimate one which illuminates Shiele's self-awareness, as well as his public image. One only has to look at some of Shiele's self-portraits to see that Snoo Wilson may have put his finger on the truth.
Staged appropriately in the intimate space of the Arcola's studio 2, this is a captivating, professional production and a compelling piece of theatre. Well-worth seeing.