By Bertolt Brecht
Translated by Simon Stone and Tom Wright
Directed by Simon Stone
Malthouse Theatre, 21 April, 2011
This play seemed much longer than 70 minutes. I was disengaged, and bored despite the eye candy — the spectacle of young female flesh abundantly on display had the predictable effect of making my mind stray into parts of my psyche that are nobody’s business except mine, and my therapist’s, but, hey, that’s another story. In short, this play was pretty crap.
Bertolt Brecht wrote Baal when he was a young man, and perhaps it’s a play best seen in one’s younger days when the experience of sex is a relatively new sensation, and it’s still possible to be unconditionally driven by the inexorable force of the pleasure principle. This Sydney Theatre Company production attempts to tap into this amoral, untameable aspect of human being, but fails to deliver more than a few banal platitudes about the dangers of the aesthetic life. Yes, we know, the-self indulgent, self –destructive urge to avoid confronting big existential questions by finding solace in sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll will end badly, so tell us something we don’t know. Please! The play’s biggest problem is that it’s devoid of intellectual content, and relies on a few cute technical tricks to distract us from this sad fact, but more about the paucity of ideas later.
The play opens with Baal delivering a rough and ready rendition of a song, which, as far as I could make out, provides a few clues to what is about to unfold — I thought I heard references to sex, sin and women, but the lead actor’s muffled singing voice made it difficult to follow the lyrics with any degree of precision. Anyway, this much is obvious from the opening scene: Baal is a rock star, a Dionysian force akin to a Jim Morrison, blessed with genius, good looks and a vicious streak of misogyny.
In the first scene a group of attractive young women, representatives of the middle-class literati, toast Baal’s artistic virtues. He responds to their praise with obnoxious behaviour — he insults them, one-by-one, and makes it clear that he’d rather fuck them than listen to their vacuous platitudes. He is a genius, and behaves as though he has every right to treat women like shit. Of course, this ‘bad boy’ display makes him even more alluring to the female sycophants who can’t help throwing themselves at this anarchic man-god. Subsequent scenes present various scenarios that reinforce this dynamic, but do little to provide insight into the relationships between the characters.
The audience is treated a few more deliberately rough songs, none of which display the poetic genius necessary to find the eponymous character especially charismatic. Sex and violence on stage can be extremely embarrassing if performed unconvincingly. Baal is supposed to be an potent force of nature — ‘a man society can’t control’ according to the translators’ notes, but Thomas Wright’s Baal didn’t exude any sense of menace, but, to be fair, this is hard to do, especially in the scenes where the actor strips naked. Baal is supposed to have an insatiable appetite of sex, with men and women, so I found it somewhat troubling that Baal’s dick was limp throughout the bacchanalian proceedings. In lieu of anything remotely approaching intellectual substance to occupy my attention, I became concerned with the flaccid state of Baal’s penis (which, inadvertently, functioned as an apt metaphor for the sorry state of the drama). How did he mange to keep his boner under control, I wondered? Did he shave his pubic hair to make his dick look bigger? Sadly, I became more interested in these ‘technical’ aspects of the production for most of the play’s duration. This is because I either have the attention span of an ADD delinquent, or the real star of the show is the set, which proved more interesting and animated than the performers strutting their stuff upon it.
The set looks like a gallery space. It consists of two white walls and a large white floor, which change colour through some smart lighting changes. Half way through the play, the large back wall collapses onto the floor, and water pours down from the lighting rig. Everything turns to black, and the water pours down like a nourish rainstorm. This is, no doubt, an impressive effect, but the pay-off is minimal. The sound of the water masks the actors’ voices, making it difficult to concentrate on their lines.
Baal murders two members of the cast, one male and one female, before getting his inevitable comeuppance. The murders are unconvincing, and the fake blood offensive. What was the production team thinking? What sort of aesthetic effect were they attempting to create? The violent acts weren’t performed ironically, or symbolically — they were just lame, and a result of a lack of engagement on what to make of Brecht’s text today. If you’re going to waste a precious resource like water in the service of art, it’s important to make it count.
What was the fuck was this production trying to say? It didn’t appear to be trying to engage with the later Brecht’s estrangement effects (not in a sustained way, at least). I get that Baal is a slave to his body’s impulses — he’s pure id, amoral, and anti-authoritarian. I get the idea the he who lives by the dick will die by the dick, or some other suitably phallic substitute. And are we to make of the representation of women? They come across as mere playthings, a bit of T&A served up for the audience’s delectation. They’re basically anonymous, interchangeable machines faintly damned for reproducing human misery. What idea or intellectual point is made by putting woman on display in this manner? I’m not against nudity, or genuinely transgressive work, but Baal just seemed pointless. Given the fake downpour, and the plethora of young female flesh, I think I might have enjoyed the show more if I’d brought my raincoat (I certainly wouldn’t have been the only person wanking in the theatre).