Saturday, October 26, 2019

Staging Schiele – one hundred years on, Egon Schiele’s self-portraits resonate with modern dating rituals in this gaunt tale (Shobana Jeyasingh at The MAC as part of #BIAF19)

A young man writhes around on the floor in a state of partial undress taking pictures of himself with a mirror that is clearly representing a smartphone. It’s an early scene from Staging Schiele which brings the naked self-portraiture of Austrian painter Egon Schiele (1880-1918) up-to-date and off the canvas and onto the dance floor. As Schiele, Dane Hurst works the angles, and ponders the aesthetic of his shots while the audience check out his nude-coloured spandex shorts.

Re-entering the stage, Schiele is now physically intertwined with a woman, sharing a garment. Intricate yet jarring movements follow as they fail to separate themselves. Clothes are soon forgotten as they tangle and entangle.

Another woman appears, then a third, dropping into the orbit of this vain artist. It’s as if he’s trying them out, flirting with their bodies. But the power doesn’t all lie in his gaze as the women gauge the competition, with angular gestures and touches, as the slight figures leap up into Hurst’s arms as if feathers in the wind. They slip in and out of the barred set as slickly as Hurst slides them across the stage floor. Played by Catarina Carvalho, Sunbee Han and Estela Merlos, the women’s figures suggests they are models, their sensual touch extending their relationship to that of lovers.

The discordant soundtrack features notes from a piano that seems to have lost its middle octaves, with superposed oohs, and the German words from a couple of Schiele’s poems spoken, sung and whispered, with the occasional euphoric groan and the word ‘stop’ to conclude each scene. One word that cuts through the accompaniment is ‘liebe’, yet it’s clear that self-love is about the only real love on show.

Having hotfooted it from covering the DUP conference for Slugger O’Toole to The MAC to catch the show, there were moments suggestive of a jilted lover, spurned after an initial intoxication, that seemed to mirror the current state of the relationship between the Conservative Party and the DUP. Though no one in Staging Schiele seemed to be left with an engagement ring worth £1 billion …

Shobana Jeyasingh reminds us that one hundred years after his death, Schiele’s penchant for painting himself naked has become common place amongst teens who engage in the trade of nude selfies as part of sick modern mating rituals. Lusty gazes overlap like the woman completing for Schiele’s attention, and there’s seemingly a plethora of vulnerable imagery to weigh up before forming a shallow relationship.

While there’s beauty in the skill and precision of the cast’s interactions, and a supportive set (Ben Cullen Williams) and beams of light (Adam Carrée), as if through prison windows, to complement the dancing, the soundtrack could have been copied from a Guantanamo Bay mixtape that’s becomes a distraction during the second half of the 50-minute performance.

Part of Belfast International Arts Festival which continues until Sunday 3 November. You can read up about my picks from the festival programme.

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