Wow. Well. The Malthouse/Sydney Theatre Company co-production of Bertolt Brecht’s Baal is a rambunctious and unforgettable theatrical event. It doesn't usually rain incessantly on stage during a play and nor, usually, does the set collapse, but this and much more happens in Baal. What to say? It thrills, it makes you gasp; it’s sexy and destructive.
We open with Baal, rock god poet, Played by Tim Rogers of the band You Am I, being feted and fawned upon by the women of a contemporary cultured, literary world. It is one of the great artistic clichés (Modigliani is one example), that of a character possessing an anti-establishmentarianism so intense that the normal limitations on ego, even those afforded by emotion, come to be regarded as bourgeois and limiting, both personally and artistically. These days, this play could seem to contribute little to the well-worn story of the doomed narcissistic genius setting himself apart from society’s expectations, but nothing seems dated even though Baal was written in 1918. Baal considers consideration and compassion to be trite yet he writes lyrics of painful beauty and tenderness (Brecht’s original lyrics are here given the rock treatment). Such is his lust for life that his depravity is intoxicating at first. His sheer exuberance and sexuality inspires irrational destructive loyalty from women and from his best friend and lover.
Baal invites the world of artists and intellectuals to ask ourselves if we grant particular latitude to those we call genius. Brecht wanted audiences to feel like they were in a boxing ring where people cheered and threw pennies to the combatants. This especially sensual and exuberant production does create this sensation by defying convention in its own right. The audience is ultimately forced to define its own limits, as per the playwright’s intention. To begin with we half go along with the anti-hero ... Those silly women offering their hearts to be shredded by a man they know is depraved; who can sympathise with them? The bacchanalian antics, sodden sensuality and disregard of conventions and mores smell like the best of good times, rock god style. But, whether you acknowledge the existence of your soul or not, the result is inevitable: persist in dissolution and the devil has you. The production brings weather on set and uses light in a subtle and skilful way as the story moves from delight to pity to horror. Baal is a populous play and the cast do triple, even quadruple duty. Baal finishes in a soaked forest, mired in blood and shit, visited by the ghosts of those he has destroyed. In the end nobody cares.