By Gordon the Optom on Theatre Australia
‘Baal’ was the first full-length play by German playwright, Bertolt Brecht. Written and composed 93 years ago, when Brecht was only 20 years old, the script and setting has now been brought into the 21st Century. Brecht took five years to find a producer willing to put this controversial play on in a theatre.
Brecht went on to write the theatrical evergreens, ‘The Threepenny Opera’, ‘The Caucasian Chalk Circle’ and ‘Antigone’.
Serge Tampalini from The School of Social Sciences and Humanities (Murdoch University) is presenting this modernistic play in collaboration with Ralf Rauker from the School of Communications and Arts at Edith Cowan University.
The performances are at the Nexus Theatre, Murdoch University, South Street, Murdoch with curtain up at 7.30 pm nightly until the 5th November. Park in Car Park 3 and then up the steps and a short walk through Bush Court to Nexus.
Whilst Ba’al may be a Semitic word for ‘master’, this spelling of Baal refers to one of the seven Princes of Hell mentioned in the Old Testament. This Prince was an evil blend of goblin, toad and cat – you think it sounds like the beginning of that Scottish play? Indeed. Frighteningly this play seems to carry the same superstition and bad luck, with this cast already tormented by the demons.
Baal is an anti-hero, who is an itinerant alcoholic and debauched writer and poet. Being a confused romantic, he glories in attacking the social order and by rejecting the principles of the bourgeois culture in which he regretfully lives.
We are reminded of the play’s origin, as Ralf Rauker opens the performance with a quote from Brecht in German. This storyline draws on ‘Sturm und Drang’, which nowadays translates as ‘storm and stress’, however in Brecht’s late 18th century setting, it was a style of romantic German literature and music. Correctly translated then as ‘turbulence and a urgency’, thus reflecting not so much violence, but rather voracity and reprisal.
The cast of 40 gather at the rear of the stage and in a threatening Hakka-like approach, advance towards the audience. Baal is born.
The time jumps forward about 20 years to show the young, virile Baal (Steve Capener) at the height of his lechery. A party is held for his friends Ekart (Steven Cosgrove) and Johannes (Grace Spini), where he is shamelessly pawing all over the finely dressed Emilie (Rhianna Hall), the wife of the local merchant and publisher, Mech (Kaitlin Goss), Baal then happens to spot Dr. Piller (Robyn Nell) a literary critic and his lady friend, so leaves Emilie and tries for a new conquest, Paula (Christie Strauss). His friend, Mjurk (Peta Kuchel) is disgusted by his behaviour, and leaves.
Baal travels around the country molesting any woman in sight. One such poor woman is Johanna (Rachel Markus), who is so ashamed of having been deflowered, that she drowns herself. Totally free of conscience, and filled with even greater desire, Baal (Cameron Knight) holds an orgy, where they spent all night, deciding to do what, with which and to whom. To emphasise the lesbian aspect Baal is shown briefly as a woman (Rachael Lee). He then abandons his pregnant mistress, Sophie (Alicia McSweeney Bethsaida Tapsall).
Baal (Jacob Canale) has now become confused and angry, as his sickness takes hold. He meets the once rich Emilie, who – after the death of her husband - is now destitute. To shame Emilie (Holly Pritchard) even further, Baal forces her to kiss a tramp (Rahim Morshidi). His best friend Ekart (Ricci Dagostino) tries to guide Baal on a healing path.
Baal makes love to his good comrade, Ekart (Hock Edwards) before murdering him and so he finds himself on the run from the police. The fear of being caught seems to have absolutely no effect on his scruples, as he continues on his almost bizarre, trancelike life of raping and murdering both women and men.
Light relief comes to the story in the form of the two cleaners (Sabrina Erese, Jess Maxfield) who fill in the local gossip.
By the end of the play Baal (Lizzy Simes – outstanding performance), now probably riddled with tertiary syphilis, is totally mad and almost incomprehensible. He keeps seeing Johanna (Moana Lutton - wonderful), who in a nightclub sequence sings an amazing lament with backing by Johannes (Michael Naidos), and accompaniment on piano by (Sophie) Andrea Tim with flautists Rachel Markus and Rachael Lee.
On his death bed, could Baal have been crying for help from his torment? Or, as is demonstrated by a paparazzi scene, along with our own natural fascination and vicarious need to act as voyeurs on the celebrities who live outside the social and moral confides of our society. This is demonstrated by the present day’s public fascination in reading the many paparazzi scandal filled ‘women’s’ magazines. Perhaps Baal was simply laughing at our normal, but dismally boring, lives.
Other parts were Baal (Francesca Vocisano), Sophie (Cherish Armstrong), a woman in black (Rebekah Easton) and the mad women in the forest (Samantha Robins, Jess Allen, Caris Eves and Carolyn Hovey).
The play has been segmented, with five directors, each tackling a piece in their own individual style. The compound result from Melissa Merchant (Act 1), Tim Brain (Act 2), Mikala Westall (Act 3), Serge Tampalini (Act 4) and Ralf Rauker (Act 5) is presented impeccably, with no jarring changes of pace or technique.
The script is along the lines of BBC1 tv’s highly successful version of this raw, revolutionary prose in 1982, which starred David Bowie as Baal and Zoë Wanamaker as Sophie.
One begs the fact, if you are going to put on a such a raw production, then you must realise that it is most frustrating for theaudience to watch a highly edited and modified version suitable only for ten-year-olds. Thirty years after the BBC, Serge and Ralf - two highly respected directors and producers - in tackling a controversial subject like ‘Baal’, have correctly demanded a huge amount from their fellow directors and the cast. The sex scenes were handled cleverly and the actors gave daring and convincing performances. The team have all rallied to the call, and given it their all. This generosity of spirit and commitment shows the respect they have for each other, along with the desire to do Brecht’s very complex, but commendable, work justice.
As mentioned in the synopsis, the characters change with each Act and director. To help us follow the storyline and retain the pace, the costumes (Bryony-Angel Wilson aided by Peta Kuchel, Holly Pritchard and Chantel Bell) have been kept the same style and colour for each character.
Although the set (Nguyen Quoc Huy) was simply a black stage with black drapes, there were some novel effects such as the falling leaves in the wood. There were still and video images projected onto a gauze background, which added colour and excitement to the mood.
The lighting (designer Kristen Berry) was excellent, mainly low level, subtle soft warm colours. Narrow beam spots were used to pick out the areas of interest. Will Slade’s sound, aided by Nguyen Quoc Huy, was also of a very high quality. Smoothly stage managed by Emma Ryan.
Heng Su Hsien’s publicity, programme and the very unusual poster (designed by Simone O’Keeffe employing the photography of Callum Koch) reminds us of the many well-known celebrities in recent years who have reached the peak of their field. The celebrities have become idols, only to lead their pathetic lifestyles of excess and have died in shame, examples being Amy Winehouse, Kurt Cobain and of course Michael Jackson. Whilst the aforementioned were self-destructive, the character Baal seemed to have no problem in dragging others down with him.
Worryingly, could we possibly all have a bit of Baal in our lives? We were left wondering, given the circumstances, how much would our morals and ethics change? Are we all potentially self-destructive hedonists?
I will apologise for any inaccuracies in this review, but in doing so I will quote from the play in which the statement ‘If theaudience understand the acting, then the actors were bad’. The play is extremely complex and the troupe has done a sterling job. The pace didn’t drag for a second. The characterisation was fantastic. A production that needs to be seen at least a couple of times to savour the depth and detail. Congratulations.