Submitted by Angus Cameron on Saturday, 9th Apr 2011
Date of Show:Wednesday, 6th April 2011 (All day)
With a squelching sound, like a boot in mud, the door opened onto the white, two walled, box-set stage and Baal dressed in tight jeans and a hoodie stepped into our lives.
Baal was Brecht’s first full length play – it is “before Brecht became ‘Brecht’” – and it is the latest offering from the Malthouse theatre done in conjunction with the Sydney Theatre Company. He is an anti-hero who takes characteristics from across history and religion. Here he is everything about society which we loath and love. He is what we fear becoming but, sometimes, wish we could be.
The set was washed over with a horrid yellow light which sapped colour out of everything. While the lighting was vaguely warm it seemed to strip the stage and the actors of any life. Then, slowly, you got used to it. Situated in one corner was a black guitar and amp; after Baal enters he begins to play, marrying the music with his poetry. Then the women come. These delightful aristocrats fawn over his music, its earthiness its realness; they want to make him big. But for Baal life is nothing but raw emotion stripped of any romanticism; despite the words that come from his mouth. He seduces people into his filth with the pretence of knowledge of something more than man; latter decreeing that “the vomit up in agony what the sucked up in ecstasy”. However there is no love in his words – there is little more than lust.
“To you Baal” the women toast, and he is catapulted from street poet to some kind of celebrity. At this point I almost started to envy his world; his life, way with words and talent with the ladies and men. He was so carefree and uninhibited. He was vulgar but somehow this was part of his charm, for lack of a better word. His downfall is predictable but enjoying his success makes watching his fall all the sweeter. Situated in the balcony made the experience unique as you were able watch the audience watching the play. The stage positioning was a constant reminder to the audience that they were watching a play and as such were reminded that the piece of art they watched was a reflection of society. Baal could be anyone and in many ways he is everyone. To reiterate the way the filth of our lives accumulates without us knowing the yellow lighting changes suddenly and the stark whiteness of the set becomes painfully apparent. You almost have to look away for a moment and finally when your eyes adjust to the glaring stage you notice the scuff marks, the stains and the dirt which has been traipsed across the floor throughout the play.
From here, it is all downhill for Baal; his world, quite literally falls down around him. The set was magnificent; often sparse but rich in meaning. The rain was mesmerising; the wind on the water… tremulous. The entire design, set and lighting, done by Nick Schlieper, was incredible and it is worth seeing the show for that itself. However, put together with the endlessly quotable script translated by Simon Stone and Tom Wright and direction by Stone made this a truly special experience. The acting, while sometimes a little stilted, especially during some of the fighting scenes, was fantastic. The girls, as a chorus, did very well changing roles and working together to create the illusion of society at large, how easily we subscribe to those we believe are romantic heroes and how cruel we are when we turn our backs on that which we detest.
Particular acting credits to Oscar Redding, Geraldine Hakewill and Shelly Lauman who played Baal’s main love interests. However, they all owe a great deal to their director Simon Stone who orchestrated the action with skill and finesse – or as much finesse one can have when dealing with sex, rape and murder. And those are the easy ones. The play moved from naturalistic moments to heavily stylised ones effortlessly. The black stage onto which the relentless rain washed over provided the opportunity for some arresting imagery while the transition from white stage to black was probably one of the best set/scene changes I’ve ever seen.
It was a confronting experience to watch something so beautiful about something so ugly. One audience member could easily watch this show and see very little while another see themselves and those around them reflected in the characters. Many people will love this play and later hate themselves for doing so, others will hate the play and love that they feel that way. It doesn’t matter either way. Brecht himself said that the “play lacked… wisdom.” And after thinking about that statement, I guess it does. The play as a piece and Baal as a character is like the moment of stillness at the centre of a storm. It is something horrifically beautiful which you watch, know can never last and wait for the world to come crashing down. Stone and his entire team have captured that moment spectacularly in Baal and it will no doubt be talked about for some time. I just wonder how many people will go up to Stone and the cast, praise their talent without even realising that they have become characters in his play.