Remember those terribly pretentious things you wrote or staged at university when you felt that you & maybe a select few of your generation were the only people who really understood the world & then years later you realised you were full of shit?
Welcome to STC’s production of Baal.
Director Simon Stone (Stone is the poor man’s Benedict Andrews, who is the poor man’s Barrie Kosky) tackles Brecht’s early didactic play the only way a young man knows how: blood, sex and naked bodies. Ho hum. Even Stone admits in the program, “to understand Baal, perhaps it is necessary to forget what you know about Brecht” and this production certainly does abandon Brecht in so many ways. The play is a very early work of Brecht’s, when he was at university post WWI and he tried to rewrite it many times. Why you might ask? Because it was flawed from the start and the message somewhat indulgent and garbled. I think Brecht, like so many writers, understood that the playwright he was to become was a distance away from the playwright he started as. The play is an interesting homage to Brecht as far as it is an historical examination of Brecht as an experimenter of form and technique. It is a typical piece of generational angst, caught up in its own attempt to express a world of change. It might serve as an interesting experimental show in a rough theatre space such as the Stables or Downstairs Belvoir but as a main stage show, Baal has completely missed its demographic and doesn’t succeed in affecting us at all.
The biggest mistake any director can make is to presume that ‘alienation’ gives you permission to not engage the audience in the action or plight of the characters. Let’s get this straight- I still need to be engaged by the journey and plight of the characters; I’m just expected to avoid catharsis. And here lies the crux of the problem with the play in the first place. Brecht had yet to perfect this art. It’s like asking Mozart to present a concert featuring his musical childhood composition of chopsticks. So the director tries to fill the flaws with tricks and the tricks are the only thing about the show that you will remember in the end. The fact that I leave this show not giving a toss about anyone (and I could be heard quite audibly suggesting, as Baal drags off one of the many female victims to skin her alive, “They’ve already killed the play, they may as well start killing each other” -and by the end my friend and I were in giggles by Baal’s rants) is probably very telling.
Alright- so let’s talk about what was interesting. The lighting & set by Nick Schlieper, especially in the early scenes, really played with tones that forced a sepia neutrality and tried to enhance the unreality of this forced fake world of art and creativity that then in the second half became a real dim reality to the hedonism of Baal’s world. The falling set in the second half and the ‘green rain’- recycled water caught by the set and sent back into a tank for reuse in the next show, was impressive technology & obviously a statement about the external world & a reflection Baal’s microcosm. Some scenes even took a moment to strike a chord, like the chorus of women surrounding Baal as he descends into madness, but unfortunately these moments could not be sustained by Stone- who didn’t seem to be in consistent control of this play. And the best evidence of that was the gratuity of nudity & beer. Yep. Got it. Hedonism. Now crack open another can and show us your willy. Whatever.
Stone calls this play a tragedy- “by presenting humanity in extremis, tragedy shows us the extents of our psychological potential…Baal is the nightmare catharsis of the anti-social instinct”. Ah…sorry, what was that? Do you mean, by presenting as many cocks, cans, titties and a man in women’s undies, we will expose the deepest darkest parts of ourselves and show the world how terrible to succumb to this extreme? I struggled to think the cast cared, let alone me. I left the theatre more concerned about what to have for dinner than what message the play might have tried to imply. And if I don’t get the message and I don’t want to take up any valuable brain space I might have left trying to figure it out, and you’re presenting the 20th century’s leading didactic playwright, Bertolt Brecht, for God’s sake, you’ve missed the bloody point. You’re sending me to sleep not stirring up my desire to change the world. Missed. The. Point.
I think STC know that this play may have missed the mark. I couldn’t help looking around the theatre at the usual blue rinse demographic and think they must be grateful the show is only 70 minutes and then look around to the younger, more desirable audience theatre’s seem to be trying to get through the door and wonder if beer and cock is enough to keep them happy. Even a complimentary program doesn’t seem like quite enough to make me feel like I got value for money. Interesting they wouldn’t let me drink before the show but suggested I drink after. Once again, very telling.
So, in a nutshell, the play is interesting for what it tries to do but doesn’t quite make it work. It has invested a lot to jazz up a relatively thin play but doesn’t quite get it over the line. The play is an experiment and I feel like I’ve just paid a substantial sum to see something that is not controlling its form or function. Gone are the days when an audience was easily shocked and this play tries a little too hard and the stink of desperation seeps through. Is it Brecht? Theatre of Cruelty? Who knows or who cares. It’s no Kosky’s ‘Women of Troy’, that’s for sure.
Perhaps the contemporary translation and appropriation of Brecht’s song by Wright, Stone & Gregory sum it up best:
“Where do I feel love the most in all the world?…..The place I find the most exquisite is in the toilet, amongst the shit.”
Well hello Baal. I could not have said it better myself.