Theatre review: Baal
There is nothing subtle about Simon Stone’s adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s first play Baal. Nudity is abundant; sex, albeit simulated, is plethoric; blood is indelible.
Nor should it be — if Stone is to evoke Brecht’s expressionistic style here — I suppose. Every feeling of callous abandon and lust for debauchery must be manifest and every drop of defiance etched on flesh.
The set is just as explicit. Glorious days for the protagonist unfold in light and heady hue — designer Nick Schlieper accentuates with white-washed boards. Then, like a harbinger to his gradual slide, the warm yellow lights turn into a saturnine grey. And, in the lead-up to his final decline, the walls come crashing down to form the eerie ground of barren darkness and home to unceasing rain.
In spite of Stone’s directorial chutzpah, the superb visual atmospherics and the actors’ admirable sacrifice, the play is weighed down by the text — most times. Co-translated by Stone and Sydney Theatre Company’s Tom Wright, the language is clunky, abstruse and inaccessible, not helped by the actors’ often-muffled enunciation.
The plot is no less bewildering. Here, Baal (Thomas M Wright) is a talented singer song-writer who is as revered by the society as the society is reviled by him. Beyond eschewing the excesses of the material world, he assaults it with a savage vengeance. He manipulates the weakness of a married woman and torments her with his cruel ways. Seducing then spurning his mate’s adolescent girlfriend, he sends her to a watery grave. He impregnates and abandons another girl who returns to haunt him in multiplying effect. And all that time, he is longing for the devotion of his bisexual lover, Eckhardt, whom he later kills in a jealous fit. In the end, Baal is to sink in his own depravity and die as a worthless man.
As Baal is as resolutely misogynistic as Brecht patently was, Stone is as determined as Brecht on leaving the “spectator’s splendid isolation intact” — and this he does with splendid success. As a result, one does not travel with Baal in his journey as a pariah disillusioned with the conventional world, bask in his glories as an (anti-)hero or suffer with him his crushing end. Instead, one recoils with disgust from ample emotional distance, condemns him from the outset and remains indifferent to the outcome. Not even graphic attempts to stain the bourgeois women — their infidelity, capricious whim and microphone in ass — manage to win one over to Baal’s defence. And admittedly, the strangled text is the ironic conspirator.
Stone directs a magnificent cast. There are excellent performances by Geraldine Hakewill as the ingénue who takes her own life and Shelly Lauman as the abandoned mother. Katherine Tonkin gives the married adulteress a stunning expressive ride while Oscar Redding is utterly (and literally) comfortable in his own skin, as Eckhardt. Still, it is Thomas Wright who hogs the limelight and arguably delivers — without so much as moving us.
Finally, Stone’s efforts have offered us a glimpse into Brecht’s breathtaking ingenuity that speaks to honest self-reflection and remarkable concern for ramifications. A short evening that is still too long for a production short on emotions but long on expression — a lament more on the play than on the production itself.