Review: Dark Suit and Lavender Shirt, Standing, Chelsea Theatre

Clearwater Collective’s Dark Suit and Lavender Shirt, Standing bills itself as a “multi-disciplinary” production on the life of Egon Schiele, mainly focusing on his relationships with Gustav Klimt and Wally Neuzil. It has to be said that some productions aren’t quite right for the space they’re in: this one is almost swallowed up by the flat space of the Chelsea Theatre, and the “precise projection” the show boasts of is relegated to one curtain at the side of the stage. It’s a pleasure to see Schiele and Klimt’s pictures here, obviously, but the true colours are muted. Some of the choreography is good, but it could be pushed further, especially as times get darker, and the scribbling gesture used to denote painting or sketching, falls somehow short, almost comical. Much of this feels very student theatre, with multiple blackouts to allow for shuffling into or out from the wings, some stock sound effects, and a Schiele (Jack Clearwater) who acts with his mouth always open.

I do give Dark Suit points for unwanted nudity, which feels correct (nudity in theatre is remarkable at making audiences uncomfortable), but as it means we have to stare at the actors’ bare feet from the very beginning at close quarters, it doesn’t do the experience too many favours. The Chelsea’s floor was not clean, and I stared uneasily as dust and dirt were caught in the hair of an actor’s arse as he effectively swept the stage for them.

The real strength of this production is the music: Julian Woods’ direction for the live accompaniment for this is enjoyable and adaptive throughout. Dark Suit and Lavender Shirt, Standing is ambitious, which I suppose should be praised, but if boldly claiming to explore “themes of transcendence, tension and the search for truth”, the script should show a little more promise. We shouldn’t have to hear someone ask “Feeling martyrial today?” or someone else declare that “Our love was primordial”, or hear about the link between sex and death and that charming thing the French call an orgasm as if this is something witty and new. Yes, we know a lot of artists are insufferable, but that doesn’t mean you have to be too.

A change in priorities, too, might serve the production well. If perhaps the most important theme here is the way Schiele is selfish, even misogynist, as he uses the women in his life sexually and artistically then denies them the legitimacy and consideration they need, why is the focus still on his life story, throughout, and not on Wally’s, his muse? They were both people, even though we only care about the artist now. It seems the final nail in the coffin for her to be a bit-player, here, doubling roles while the two male actors play only Schiele and Klimt respectively: a sort of vindication of the way Schiele lived his life, heedless to his mentor’s warnings.

Dark Suit and Lavender Shirt, Standing played at the Chelsea Theatre on 6 January 2018

Photo: Clearwater Collective

Frey Kwa Hawking

Frey Kwa Hawking

Frey Kwa Hawking is a small person, full of hate, who lives and writes in London. He likes to go to the theatre and the cinema. Sometimes they let him in. He is trans and Malaysian-Chinese. He always orders xiao long bao. Follow him on Instagram at @absentobject.