The current Malthouse Theatre/Sydney Theatre Company co-production of one of Bertolt Brecht’s earlier works, Baal, is the most confronting play I have seen in a long time. Male nudity, female nudity, cross-dressing, alcoholism, men kissing men, women kissing women, simulated sex, attempted rape, violence and murder are just some of what Baal has to offer on stage. Definitely not a play for the faint-hearted.
This review comes near the end of the season of Baal at Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatre because, initially, I had not intended to attend this show. Knowing that Baal was not one from the top shelf of Brecht’s 40 or so plays, I thought I may give this one the slip. It doesn’t have the sophistication or maturity in the writing as Mother Courage and her Children or The Caucasian Chalk Circle, mostly because its first version was written when Brecht was just 20 years of age. But a last-minute change of mind occurred because Baal is rarely performed in the professional arena. In fact, Brecht in general is seldom performed in professional mainstream contemporary theatre in Australia. Yet here we have the second major Brecht production in Melbourne in less than a year (Malthouse Theatre also co-produced The Threepenny Opera in conjunction with Victorian Opera in June 2010). This fact, alone, must be celebrated.
Baal bares all the hallmarks of an angry young man and is written before Brecht developed both his Marxist principles and his epic theatre techniques that would later make him one of the most influential figures in 20th century theatre. It was written in response to The Loner (Der Einsame) by Hanns Johst, where the main figure was a romantic lone artist. Baal centres around its title protagonist, a young poet-singer idolised like a God by his peers as a young artist of critical acclaim. But Baal (the character) is an amoral, anti-social, anti-authoritarian and anarchistic cult-like figure who treats others as he sees fit, and without consequences. He is an anti-hero with little respect for the women he deals with and abuses in his world of disorder; one that lacks any sense of value system.
This version of Baal (the play) was a swift 75-minute drama that literally left me numb at the end. Was this a translation or an adaptation? Is this Brecht’s first play or not? Was it semi-autobiographical? Which version of the two or three Brecht wrote for Baal was the stimulus for this production? Does all this really matter? Probably not. But so thought-provoking and confronting was this play, I found myself in the rare situation of relief when the cast dropped their characters and became “human” again to take their bows at the end. I say human, because in the play they were monsters.
Was this Baal style over substance? A visual feast it surely was, but the poetry in Brecht’s verse for the spoken dialogue of the play’s protagonist in particular, was quite beautiful. This production has already left many with widely divided opinions (isn’t that the sign of good theatre?), but for me it definitely had substance. Was it intended for this cast to merely “demonstrate” their roles instead of fully consuming them? How does one treat a Brecht play nearly a century after its writing, knowing that at its first performance Brecht had not fully developed his anti-realistic theories for acting and the stage?
Regardless, the acting in this production was consistently strong. Thomas M Wright’s portrayal of Baal was mesmerising, at times scary. A finely calibrated performance, Wright’s interpretation of Baal was utterly convincing and powerful on many levels. Was this production expressionistic or epic theatre? Probably a bit of both and also a bit of neither. There were touches of expressionism, particularly in the Christ-like visual of Baal being carried out at the play’s conclusion, and also brief moments of epic techniques in the minimalist set design, use of song and breaking of character. Yet so much of this production was in an in-your-face assault on the senses, Antonin Artaud may have been proud to call it his own, too.
Props (no pun intended) go to Simon Stone and Tom Wright for their translation of the text and to Stone for his direction. Any Brecht production of quality given the opportunity to perform to the masses is a plus for contemporary theatre in this country. I doubt Brecht’s nearly century-old original text would have engaged the audience anywhere near as much as this version did.
As a side note, watching Baal reminded me of a situation in late 2009 when my Year 11 Drama class asked me: if we have a widespread use of ratings for film and these days even PS3 and XBOX games, then why don’t live theatre shows have ratings for people to see in advance for deciding whether to attend or not? Warnings are now becoming more commonplace. But should we have MA and the like for theatre shows? A healthy classroom debate ensued. I wouldn’t go anywhere near taking my students to see a show such as Baal, for reasons that should be obvious in the opening paragraph of this review. While what is “acceptable” theatre for teenagers is up to the individual (teacher in this case), I notice Baal has been included in the Sydney Theatre Company schools education program as a day in May for students to receive a briefing just prior to the play’s opening in the STC mainstage season. I wonder if they’ll tell the students what the play entails on stage? More importantly, will drama teachers follow the prompts and then go and see Baal with their students? Good luck fielding the phone calls from their parents afterwards! Granted, it comes with warnings for students and teachers to see, but it also comes with this warning “It is not recommended for people under the age of 18”! I think the STC should heed their own warning(!), because Baal isn’t even remotely suitable for high school students in my opinion. If the STC has (rightly) stated Baal is not suitable for students under 18, then why is it part of their schools education program? As the current President of the drama teachers association here in Victoria, these sorts of things do worry me.