Beast

Tue 5th – Sat 9th November 2013

reviews

Hannah Greenstreet

at 00:18 on 6th Nov 2013

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The words ‘contemporary verse drama’ might strike fear into the hearts of some but Helen Charman’s production of 'Beast' is a beautiful and compact exploration of love, lust and what it means to be human.

'Beast' by Irish playwright Elena Bolster was first staged in 2009 and fictionalises, obliquely and lyrically, a relationship between the artist Egon Schiele and a young prostitute, Valie. You do not, however, need to be familiar with the intricacies of expressionist art to connect with the play. Indeed, despite the half finished paintings that are scattered along the back wall of the set and the visual image of Valie posing for Egon, who sits centre stage with pencil and canvas in hand, one gets the sense that it is Valie’s words that are the real creative power. One of the great strengths of this production is that Charman and her performers let the verse speak. They are sensitive to but not over-precious about the poetry, even achieving moments of humour; it manages to be therefore, at times, exciting and deeply moving.

The play does not have a plot as such, although it does have a shape in depicting the rise and fall of a relationship with the decline of Egon’s health. Images are slowly layered up, as in a poem, so that they come to be imbued with extraordinary resonance, such as the idea of the human body becoming a painting. Egon declares in the throes of illness “I am blurring”, reversing the power dynamic between painter and sitter. We are only offered snatches of their lives together, indicated by subtle lighting changes. Sometimes the last line of each episode can seem overly emphasised as significant, jarring with the understated tone of the play. It also took me a few minutes to get my ear into the rhythms of the verse and the playing style. However, gradually and ineluctably I was drawn in by the actors and the language.

Sam Grabiner and Laura Waldren make an electric pairing. Grabiner captures the complexity of the character of Egon, petulant, obsessive, dangerous yet viscerally seductive and, at rare moments, deeply vulnerable. His facial expressions and screams of pain as he finds his body decaying are terrifying. Waldren, in turn, plays Valie in a way that captures her sexual vitality and fragility, collapsing into a palpable grief when Valie lets her control slip. The complexity of both characters unsettle whom we should think of as the ‘beast.’

Charman meets the challenges of the text with a precision and subtlety in the direction. The scarcity of dialogue is echoed by the physical separation of Egon and Valie; even the sex scene is stylised, with Valie stripping next to but not looking at Egon. Moments of physical intimacy therefore come to seem extremely precious, making full use of the space of the Corpus Playroom. In a final touch, live harp music also helps to create a sense of otherworldly beauty.

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