After meeting on board a ship, a whore and a painter fall in love with each other and, within an hour’s performance, lead us through a passionate relationship that is both erotic and loving. Although the story is only inspired by Schiele and Valerie and strays a little from the real events, the characters of Egon (Kieron Jecchinis) and Valie (Mel Oskar) express a very compelling story that you can’t help but feel moved by. The casting is perfect. The experienced Jecchinis with his hard, weathered features lets a quiet but ardent spirit seep through as a man who has trouble expressing himself. Oskar, a young and confident presence with her delicate and subtle Icelandic articulation, exudes both a youthful energy and a mature awareness through her character.  With some astonishingly well-written rhyming verse, the couple share their relationship directly with the audience as a series of monologues broken up by moments of fluid dancing and naturalistic, often comic dialogue as the artist paints his impatient muse.

Bolster’s text is a marathon of poetry that runs the narrative without upstaging the characters. Without detracting from the period, the syncopated rhythms and conversational style give it a modern feel like a more temperate Berkoff or slam-poetry. Aided by some gentle spotlights from Matt O’Leary’s elegant lighting design, the faces of both performers became mesmerising as they spoke with images easily coming to mind to fill out the details.

Throughout this production, the maxim “less is more” has worked well. Alistair Turner’s set is a simple layout of decking, with each strip of wood bending up near the back wall at a different angle, offering a place to sit whilst creating space for some under-lighting. The lighting is at times only just bright enough to make out the faces, the performances are nuanced and the props, like Egon’s easel and paintbrush, are non-existent. The result is an audience who are drawn in to observe the finer details and hang on every word. It is simply beautiful.

Breaking up the live action, attention is occasionally drawn to projections of black-and-white flickering footage of fishing and sea life.  Whilst this gives us an idea of the images surrounding the opening scene on the water, it seemed to lose relevance with later parts of the story. I liked the concept of projected footage supporting and framing certain scenes, but with the richness of the text the images didn’t add anything for me, and in one scene I wondered why I had found myself being distracted by the slow and menacing motion of an octopus. I’m aware that, given the title, there are many animalistic references surrounding Valie but after considering the action of the play, I didn’t feel that this connected with Valie’s character. I didn’t really understand why she was referred to as a “beast” beyond a passing playful jibe and that there was much more to this story than that. The action of the play is undoubtedly moving as, when Egon falls ill, Valie must do her best to support him whilst addressing her fears of death. Her descriptions of the obols (coins) placed in the mouths of the dead are heartbreaking. 

Along with the projections, Egon’s condition and its strain on his relationship is drawn through a series of scenes that repeat their first dance together. Jennifer Malarkey’s movement direction compliments and develops the story under a slightly-too-repetitive musical accompaniment as we see the dance with Egon’s co-ordination becoming harder to manage.

Beast packs quite an emotional punch and is neatly arranged into just under an hour. Both actors make their craft seem effortless, expressing a passionate chemistry between them whilst holding on to two very different personalities. Whether the writing or the production lost sight of an intended bestial nature or whether I missed something in the watching of it, I’m not sold on the title for this production as a sufficient summary of its content. I was, however, incredibly moved and impressed by the fine performances in this excellent piece of new writing. 

Beast, at The White BearTom Oakley reviews Beast at the White Bear Theatre.4