On Sunday afternoon, I saw a production that wasn’t very good, of a play that wasn’t very good. The play was Bertolt Brecht’s Baal, the production Simon Stone’s, currently on at the Malthouse, and my Sunday was spent picking it apart.
Theatre in this town is an ideological business, and I should proclaim loudly, before I begin, that I am not ideologically opposed to anything that happens on the Malthouse stage: I think there are good reasons to think of Brecht as one of the most important dramatists and directors of the twentieth century; I am always interested in seeing Simon Stone’s work; and I believe theatre exists in present tense as well as in history. None of the procedures employed had to fail – but I would like to suggest, nonetheless, that they did.
So what is this Baal, I hear you ask? An early play of Brecht’s, written when he was twenty years old, staged first in 1923, before the musicals, before the Verfremdungseffekt is theorised. A youthful play, imperfect, a series of scenes hanging together with some music, rather than a dramaturgically cohesive work. But just as Brecht has been apt to turn every one of his shortcomings as an artist into a system, a theorised and passionately argued virtue, so has Baal been re-written and re-interpreted, by Brecht himself, as complying with his later political position. Baal writes poems, is cheered by the town, copulates, abandons women who then suicide, keeps multiple lovers, and generally wreaks havoc until he finally dies, in a hut, alone.
It is important to note that Baal in itself is, on the one hand, a beautiful work, an example of the bleak German Expressionism of the era, and an innovation in the Romantic tradition of depicting the artist as a thunderous, chaotic outsider – but one whose existence touches those around him in ways that are overall spiritually uplifting. It also follows in the tradition of Wedekind and Buchner, young Brecht’s likely reading material, of morally chaotic and emotionally turbulent theatre of bleak poetry. But it is also important to note that, innovation aside, Baal is exactly the sort of play one would expect from a twenty-year-old that has just managed to avoid being conscripted in World War I, and who is playing bohemia in and out of his comfortable middle-class home in Augsburg. It is the kind of work full of pictures, of images of reality, but it is clear that its own grasp on the meaning of what is depicted is not very strong. The author’s youth is visible in the fragmentary plotting (Brett Easton Ellis, a better mind than he is a writer, and not entirely out of context here, once said that a young writer will always have problems with narrative, because s/he doesn’t have sufficient life experience to understand how consequences shape out of actions), but also in the vague sense of what it is that is happening, who is it that is getting harmed and how, what drives these characters, and what the point ultimately is.
I may also add that, as John Fuegi asserts, at the time of writing Baal (or in this general period anyhow), a certain Bie Banholzer was sent off to the country to give birth to a little Brecht away from the respectable bourgeois milieu of Ausburg, that Brecht publicly celebrated his paternity (but not to the extent of taking care of the young mother and child), and that he soon began liaisons with a number of young women, lecturing each on the need for monogamy, and going so far as to have written contracts drafted. And by all accounts, Brecht spent the rest of his life having liaisons outside his marriage, collaborating with women and then claiming whole ownership of the written work, abandoning lovers, and generally behaving very poorly towards the women in his life.
These are important points, not because I am a moralist (I am not), or because I don’t think Brecht can do this and remain a great theatre theorist and director (he can and he is), but to point out that, while there is a certain kind of beauty in Baal, it is almost entirely a picturesque one, a beauty of style, Expressionism-cum-youthful-romanticism gleaned from reading Wedekind. I don’t think I’m reading too much into it if I see there a need to emulate his reading, both in his writing and in his life. And while this beauty of style (which Ellis also points out is a mark of a young writer) is certainly there, and while there is a certain detachment in the portrayal of the artist as a god of doom, I have failed to see any real critique in the text, or even a fundamental understanding of what it is that happens in it on a psychological level. The clarity of vision that characterises Brecht’s later works, the ability to present the world as a moral machine of sorts, is not here – but neither is there a psychologically complex universe of the previous generation: Ibsen, Chekhov. Instead, the whole thing works as a 1920s sort of Brett Easton Ellis novel: a series of foul actions committed by aloof characters leaves us with no sense of purpose.
And here problems start occurring for Stone, the director. Stone has made his name by essentially re-writing, then directing, the works of that same previous generation – and the generation Brecht was particularly defining himself in opposition to. And at this he has been very good. Stone’s interpretations of Chekhov and Ibsen have been quite rightfully praised as some of the best ‘theatre theatre’ this country has seen recently. But these dramatists’ work function in a radically different way to Brecht’s: they are all Nordic atmosphere, meaningful silences, socio-political subtext beneath the respectable bourgeois surface. And Stone has directed them aptly Bergmanesquely: in chiaroscuro, with long shadows, carving hints and glimpses of universal significance out of meticulous portrayal of the mundane. Re-writing has been an important part of his success: Stone’s productions are largely plays of his own, following carefully another playwright’s dramaturgy. (As a side note, the success of this approach is also an example of a young writer circumventing his own shortcomings on narrative grounds, yet doing the most of his deftness with style.)
The problem with Brecht is that he is precisely the opposite kind of writer. Whereas a scene from Ibsen is a meticulous moment of mundane, through which one may glimpse a universal significance, Brecht’s writing is blunt, sketchy, showing only the essential point of the scene. The role of the spectator is then to relate this sketch to an everyday moment, to anchor it in reality (in this aspect Brecht’s writing functions as satire).
So. Ibsen: particular hinting at the universal. Brecht: universal hinting at the particular.
I don’t think it’s easier to direct the former than the latter kind, but much of this production nonetheless looked like Stone wasn’t sure what particular he was hinting at. The early scenes were much stronger than the later, because that balance was gotten right. In the opening scene, a group of elegantly-clad women toast Baal, dressed in tight black jeans with an electric guitar. He sings of diarrhoea and hell. They want to publish him and make him famous. He wants a glass of wine. They think he is a great artist. He wants to fuck one. Another says, I made my money cutting down the Amazon forest, but now I want to sponsor art. Nobody talks like that in real life! But because we recognise the reality behind it, because we see the grunge god Kurt Cobain and the goth cowboy Nick Cave in Baal, and because we recognise the capitalist arts-enthusiasts, the scene works exactly the way Brecht needs to work – as satire laced with arsenic.
Photo by Jeff Busby.
An interesting question opens up here, one certainly dear to any theatre-goer – the question of the bright young man, and our adoration of him. To have him appear in a production by a bright young male director makes it all the more interesting.
But then, as it progresses through copulation, rain, collapsing sets, red knickers, prams and babies, multiple deaths, it is less and less certain what this production is attempting to do. It seemed that, as the end neared, Stone was trying to strip Baal down, to let its universal message shine through – but, as previously discussed, Baal doesn’t know what it is, that essence isn’t there. And the hints pointing at the extra-theatrical reality get increasingly blunt: while prams and hoodies, amps and cans of bourbon&coke are still able to transport us somewhere, what are we to make of Chris Ryan in stilettos and bikini, except remember Michael Kantor? By the end of the show, the stage has been drenched in three kinds of rain, all sorts of transgressions have been depicted on stage, and Baal’s dead body is hauled out by two friends – housemates? – making ironic remarks about artists; the overall atmosphere is that of the end of something puzzling, multifarious, but ultimately unsatisfying – not unlike a typical Kantor production.
The other problem is the text, on which the actors occasionally choke, and which is frequently delivered as a sort of overblown declamation – very unlike Stone’s customary subtle direction. It has been pointed out to me that Stone’s penchant for re-writing the play entirely may have caused the problems here: perhaps too much Brecht was left in the text?
But Stone’s is nonetheless a valiant attempt, and a better Brecht than I have seen in this town in a long while. Some features of the production were very interesting: the 6-actress female chorus as a generalised aggrieved population; the extended nudity of almost everyone, which created voluptuous and abject carnality instead of Melbourne theatre’s customary rosy view of sex (see Narelle Benjamin’s In Glass). However, in a production that generally doesn’t achieve what it sets out to do, these momentary successes of form and meaning are islands in a sea of confusion.
Baal, by Bertolt Brecht, translated by Simon Stone and Tom Wright, directed by Simon Stone. Set and lighting Nick Schlieper, costumes by Mel Page, composition and sound design Stefan Gregory. With Bridig Gallacher, Geraldine Hakewill, Luisa Hastings Edge, Shelly Laumann, Oscar Redding, Chris Ryan, Lotte St Clair, Katherine Tonkin and Thomas M Wright. Malthouse Theatre and Sydney Theatre Company. Merlyn Theatre, Malthouse, until April 23; Sydney Theatre Company, May 7-June 11.