• 03 Jun 2011 /  Reviews 12 Comments

    I’ve have been struggling with this one for weeks, it’s been like having an albatross hanging round my neck and getting stinkier by the day.  I’ve decided to burn all previous drafts cut the dead body off and toss it back into the sea. If it floats, well and good. If it sinks, so be it. I know the problem: while there is much I admire and respect about this production,it also happened to leave me unmoved. Positive or negative – I can find little in me to generate a response. So whatever comes out here is by way of effort and a sense of duty, not enthusiasm or outrage.

    Some packaging. I wrote a very tough response recently to The Business, and since Baal is in many ways it corner opposite, the presumption would be that I would come out raving. But art is rarely so simple, nor writing about it. Both works are by what I guess we are now calling the new generation to float to the top of the profession here in Australia. And there are some commonalities. Both work are radical rewrites of minor texts by famous writers. And bother are shows that are very strongly director and designer driven. In other ways the two shows could not be more different. If The Business, whatever anyone else says, was shrill and ill-prepared, Baal is a thoroughly considered project and well worked through. Secondly, it is much easier to write about a show if you react to it with a passion – either way (positive or negative). In that sense I found it easy to write about The Business because it stirred a reaction in me. That did not happened to me watching Baal. I thought it was classy, but I came away unmoved: neither shaken nor stirred.

    Baal and a victim: photo by Jeff Busby

    It may well be that this was its point. The creators seemed to deliberately choose to work against certain conventions and emotional expectations. With so much of what is popular in theatre – like big emotions – surgically removed, we were being pushed, I think, to think. But what about?

    Let me say early up that, with all the baalihoo about the current trend fort rendering-renditioning-stealing-translating-reworking-adapting (call it what you will) of classic texts, I chose on this occasion to experiment by taking the work for what it is on stage now – unfamiliar with Brecht’s original. I have never seen a production nor read a translation. This seemed an important opportunity, given the course of the current debate. Most ticket-buying punters are unfamiliar with the ‘originals’ on which many of our more important current productions are based. And I know, from my own experience, it does have an effect. Tom Holloway’s Love Me Tender was inspired by Euripides’ Iphigenia in Aulis. I knew the source text and – talking to others who had seen the show and been quite confused by it – I realised that my familiarity with the Euripides helped me ‘read’ and appreciate Holloway’s script. And hence the production. I remember people involed in the production saying, ‘oh you don’t need to know the original’. Although I never reviewed this production at the time, I have been waiting to say this: yes you do, yes you did!

    We all bring different pasts into the theatre, and theatre-makers can never ensure we all start on the same page (as it were). But theatre is a communal event, and in the debate about this new fashion for re-fashioning classic texts (remembering all translations are re-fashionings to some degree) I think a simple fact is being overlooked. Yes, of course you can re-jig the heck out of an old script for contemporary purposes. But I do think artists need to remember that in stripping and honing, in cutting and re-arranging, in adding and subtracting they are spending a lot of time with the original and are getting to know it very well. One of the reasons why I liked The Wild Duck is, not only was it emotionally engaging but, having some familiarity with a couple of conventional translations, I was able to admire what the writers had ‘done’ in bringing their version to life for a 21st century audience.

    It also had what I personally enjoy in the theatre – big honest emotions. Now I that may well be a matter of personal predilection – yes I live out  a big slice of my personal inner life by going to the theatre. But I am not sure the general ticket buying public (and they are a very mixed bunch), are always getting what the artists are setting out to create in these new ‘readings’ of classics because there is a backlog of knowledge packed into the scripts’ origins to which many are not privy. And then the double whammy in Baal, a whole bunch of – let us call them cliches about traditional theatre making – are surgically removed. So what we have is as new as the newest work of art in an art gallery. Unfortunately, a work of art in an art gallery can sit there for decades until people catch up with it. Theatre, I would argue, has to pick people up from where they are now and lift them to a new place.

    Of course this is getting more and more difficult when the way we experience the world is getting more and more individualised – no more talk around the water cooler at work about last night’s hit television show because we were all watching something different. And anyway, who works in an office – personally, I don’t see people for days. The closest I get to sharing whatever happened to me last night is on Facebook (and that usually involves me taking a photo of one of my cats and hosting that up via various forms of technology).

    Then there is the ‘cold fish’ argument. It is a valid endeavour, but to and one pursued by Brecht himself. Remove the big emotional responses, so we can better observe or study that is happening to the characters. I am denied my cheap thrill, that’s okay. But what happens if I am being delivered food for thought and I see nothing on the plate to digest. Not nothing I want to digest – that would be like being to scared to eat peas (like poor Wozzeck). But nothing – I emerged from this production in a zombie state. Neither alive nor dead.

    That is not how it has been for others. Some have loved the show – people with fine minds and lots of theatre experience. other with fine minds and less experience. I don’t know many people without a fine mind, so I can speak for them. But equally there are others who have not cared for this work in quite a passionate way. For good leads, I recommend you read both Alison Croggon and Kevin Jackson. Both are impressive responses, if very different. And you will likely get more from reading both those reviews back-to-back than you will from reading what I have here. Certainly what I write here is somewhat contingent on those responses.

    Director Simon Stone worked with Chris Ryan on the script for The Wild Duck. here, with Baal, Stone worked with Tom Wright, the writer best known in Australia for working in this new field of radical rewrites. Croggon has some great insights into the strengths of this production and Jackson puts up some great counter-arguments. Jackson makes one very interesting finding, a personal one – which has opened a door in my thoughts. Jackson expresses a weariness with the many portrayals we have been getting with what’s wrong with the world (existential angst), and wonder when we are going to get top see a show that laughs in life’s face (my words) or offers us some way out  – say we all become Buddhists or give in and mass suicide at the end of the show (my suggestions).

    Jackson and I are not so young and it’s likely we’ve both seen a bit doping life’s rounds. And I guess that’s where I had problems with this show. For me it as like – big deal! There is a massive story in here – about the power charismatic people have over even the best of us. And it important message got through to some people. But for me, Baal – in this incantation – had no charisma. And I presumed that was what the cutting-edge artists involved in this production aimed to achieve. No outbreak of “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina’ to stir our loins. So the masses today are drawn like moths to the flame to people without charisma? It’s true they are – you only have to look at the Lady Gaga phenomenon. But this play is not going to speak to Lady Gaga fans, and those of us devoted to art theatre (well me anyway), I am walking out wondering why I didn’t stay home and watch Masterchef (thoughts of food if not food for thought).

    It’s one thing or another – and I am stumped because I am unable to read the artists’ intentions.

    One: either the artistic team has gone put of its way to eliminate as many obvious emotional triggers as possible. The rock star sings some songs, but they hardly have emotional wrench of ‘Bali Hai’  from the musical South Pacific. If this had been been a Kosky production, by way of some lite relief, I can see the naked female chorus knocking off a juicy version of ‘I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair – and Send Him On His Way’. Which of course the female characters should have done with this boorish Baal: sending him packing and go off on a Slutwalk! But no they succumbed - everyone of them – to his pulling power. Until one of them is dead in a river. Meanwhile one buddy starts dressing up as a chick to see if that can catch Baal’s eye that way. But to no avail as Baal starts pursuing an affair with a nuggety 100 percent bloke. It’s all very daring and unorthodox – that is, if you’ve not lived much of a life.

    This is where Kevin Jackson and I join ranks. This is such a piss-weak version of ‘outrageousness’ (my words again), if you have any idea of what goes on out there in the real world. And has been for several dozen centuries. Nudity – so what. Rape and pillage – so what. It’s like it’s all so yesterday to imbue such events with emotion. And okay, if we have to trade emotion in for idea – that’s fine. But what’s the idea? What are we meant to be taking away from this show? I’m not being rhetorical – it’s a genuine question. If this show hit you between the eyeballs – let me know. Tell me why.

    While I am delighted that this highly literate generation of well brought up kids are interested in making theatre (as opposed to just movies and video clips), I do wonder sometimes about what is going on in their heads. I know it’s a generalization, but have you noticed how many of our young theatre-makers right now are not only male (yes that old whore horse), but have double degrees, speak several languages, don’t smoke, drink, eat meat or commit adultery. Had great parents and went to good schools. Most by 25 are (happily) married with one kid. They work hard and are very nice. But few seem to have suffered. Not something I wish on anyone, and I accept you don’t have to have done it to know it. But  interesting, in this context, the excerpt (below)  from a story in The Australian that appeared before Baal’s Melbourne premiere:

    ‘Stone prefers to adapt the work of others rather than write original plays, he says, because his privileged upbringing meant he has nothing to struggle against. “One reason why I still work on classics and don’t write truly original plays is because I don’t really have that much I’m dying to say about my life, which is fairly boring and ordinary.”‘ I admire Stone for his honesty (as well as his talent). But does that mean that he and those working on this show see the featured nudity and orgy scenes as ‘exciting’. That is the other option: that the work is highly exciting to some people – just not to the likes of Jackson and myself who both endured a ‘whatever’ reaction.

    All that said,  this is very beautiful to look at.  The production is immaculate – even the filth is immaculately done. The set is a tour-de-force and the lighting design (both by Nick Schlieper) blasts your eyeballs out of your head at times with its astonishing brilliance (both meanings). But one should not leave a theatre singing the sets, as the saying goes. I am not disparaging the work as I did The Business. I respect this production, I just didn’t get it. It went right past  me like a curved ball. Sorry if I’ve seen too much of life for this particular version of angst and suffering to make much impression on me.

    Can I just add, in defence of this Baal. Not all shows are created with the view of personally pleasing me, and or anyone in particular. And the artistic vision of the STC at the moment is quite different from what we have had before. The programs of previous regimes have been strongly stamped by the personality of the artistic director. The company is so big now, and working out of so many venues, it is taking a different path – and that is not to please some of the people all of the time. But rather, many of the people some of the time. And if we critics put the boot into STC for producing In the Next Room, which we regard as bourgeois and shallow. Or bite it on the for bringing in so much stuff out from overseas. The we have a duty to support the company’s decision to give this bold home-made production a chance. Whether it speaks to me personally is beside the point.

    Posted by James Waites @ 1:18 pm

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12 Responses

  • epistemysics Says:

    I’m scheduled to see this next week – I thought of buying an extra ticket for earlier in the run, as I like to do with shows that I think I will enjoy immensely (Uncle Vanya was the last I did it for, The Seagull is the next), but never really felt the urge. It seemed to produce such a controversy in Melbourne (especially on Alison’s blog – or maybe it was just a ‘storm in a comments section’), but the feeling I’m getting from Sydney’s response is an overwhelming ‘meh’. Does anyone in Sydney actually like it? Maybe I’ve just been reading the wrong reviews…

    Quite enjoyed your ‘baalihoo’ comment, by the way.

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  • James Waites Says:

    This show deserves vigorous discussion – pro and anti. It has exposed the commentators shortcomings (including mine). Agree or disagree with him, but Kevin Jackson is the first in Sydney to offer a worthwhile effort. That’s why I would love to know what readers think. But you never know which reviews are going to inspire readers to respond.

  • Peter Cross Says:

    I’m not sure if ‘enjoyed it’ is the right term – it was an interesting night out.
    James writes that he was left untouched by Baal – I actually thought that was the point of the production indeed the point Baal. He was untouched by anything and everything around him. In the end Baal couldn’t have given a rat’s arse for what any of us thought.
    Strange that most of the reviews have focused more on the set than the actors.
    I was more surprised by the theatre – it seemed an odd play to have ‘main stage’ at our greenest of facilities. It felt very much like a Studio show rather than main room. Still at leat it wasn’t at The Opera House – now that would have been peculiar.
    I wonder if there is some transition period happening in theatre (esp. in Sydney) at the moment – and we are all circling like a Qantas jet that needs refuelling.
    I don’t know but few things these days (obvious exceptions) leave me excited to be going to or coming from a play.
    Is it a case of the more you see the less you like? To end on a Carrie Bradshaw note – “Or are we all just played out and waiting for the next big thing to come along hoping we don’t miss it when it arrives?”

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  • James Waites Says:

    I think you are right – essentially that the production achieved what it set out to do. And in that sense we respect it as a specialist high art event. I thought it was in the right theatre for that. I didn’t say much about the actors – I slashed that bit in my rewrites. Mainly because I thought the acting was very uninteresting – and if that was deliberately so then we really do have a tough night in the theatre. Not having charisma is one thing but not engaging he audience is another. I thought I heard it all but not much of it sunk in. I was shocked to come home and read how beautiful the lyrics of the songs were – they were not communicated to me when I was listening to them. I wonder what else I missed, thinking I as engaged when I was actually not?

  • Jack Says:

    I would be genuinely surprised if I heard anyone say that they actually, truly liked this production. I certainly didn’t not like this show, but as you say, it was clear from early on that this is the sort of production you respect and admire for all its efforts and intricacies in staging and production values.
    I saw the second Sydney preview with a friend of mine. Immediately after, we were a little taken aback. On the way out, we were completely stumped, confused and disorientated. By the time we got to the car, we laughed.
    Without any sort of emotional connection to the play I tried and tried to draw some kind of personal meaning/interpretation, and for my own piece of mind I can only hope that Stone was trying to make some statement about the nature of art. Its subjectivity. Its volatility. Its destructiveness. Maybe?
    With all the non-conformity and debauchery shown here, to me it is the bookends of the show that give it any sense of validity (the opening scene with Baal and the high-class arty types, and the final moments where his body is carried off – the final lines, something like “f*cking artists”). It comforts me immensely to think that the pretentiousness of this production is false, and in great humor. If that isn’t the case, I’m extremely concerned.

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  • James Waites Says:

    That’s a really great response Jack. Certainly helpful to me. Your observations about the ‘bookends’ is excellent. We certainly start somewhere and end up somewhere very different. And your point about its possible ‘pretentiousness’, one could also say ‘portentousness’, being some kind of running joke about wanky artists is comforting. I am meeting a lot of people who say they like and/or love this show, just no one is able to tell me why. There lies its riddle. I am about to write a response to seeing Terminus from Abbey Theatre last night. It offered me some insights into why I struggled to make sense of Baal while nonetheless admiring it.

  • Augusta Says:

    What a really wonderful piece of writing, James.
    Thank you.
    My response was very much a “So what”… and also one of “yeah, yeah… and?”
    Don’t we as intelligent victims of everyday society know all of this?
    Don’t we know what it means to be numb? To feel nothing – to exist in a never-ending vortex of marketing and superficial banality?
    Don’t we consume/see these ideas playing out on TVs and music videos… don’t we know the excess and the masochism of youth (who shoot up too high, too fast?) Don’t we know that fame and power corrupts absolutely?
    The thing is for me – this production didn’t show me anything new that I already don’t know, and I certainly don’t feel I need reminding off – we live in a self-destructive, self-obsessed age of narcissism -and frankly – an age of self-inflicted suffering brought on by emptiness -
    My question is – knowing all this – seeing all this in wider society, how does putting this in a theatre, change or develop or inspire audiences to change it?
    What is the purpose of this show?
    Who is it for?
    Clearly not for me – because I wasn’t only alienated (if that was the intent) but bored.
    Perhaps boredom is the new alienation – perhaps the comment was that boredom would be Brecht’s weapon of choice if he were alive today.
    But I reckon, I can be bored on my own time and my own dime- theatre is a place for engagement.
    (old fashioned, me!)
    What are these creatives pushing against or pulling towards philosophically, culturally, generationally?
    I am concerned of the hero worship of art (and I must say on Opening night there were some bright-eyed student actors fawning over Simon Stone’s brilliance – a disturbing perpetuation of the onstage content.
    Very disturbing indeed.

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  • James Waites Says:

    Thanks Augusta, I appreciate people – including yourself – pitching in and helping me make sense of this show. What it means to different people – and what it does not!

  • Suzanne Says:

    Thanks for adding to the conversation about this production James….it’s an intriguing one. I saw Baal tonight and a few hours after leaving the theatre, I am still feeling what I have begun to describe as “uncomfortably numb”.
    For my money (and as this was STC – it was a fair chunk of it!), I am quickly becoming comfortable with my uncomfortable response, because it makes me want to talk about it with others – and I think that is fundamentally why we create theatre; to ignite conversation and incite thought which rises to response & opinion about the human condition.
    There’s so much to write, however, I fear I may end up waffling as I have been left somewhat vague and incomprehensible after tonight’s offering (I have some clear images in my head, but can’t quite work out what they mean!! More questions than answers about the production in it’s entirety!). So I thought I might just throw this into the mix instead…

    “If you understand the story, that just means it’s been told badly”: spoken by one of the women in Baal!

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  • James Waites Says:

    Proves to be a tricky one Suz – like mercury it breaks up into smaller as soon as you go to touch it.

  • May-Brit Says:

    I find it interesting that this production of Baal has caused so much controversy. I was just bored all the way through. Indifferent. What is confronting or provoking or even dramatic about a group of naked people simulating sex? Even with 2000 litres of water splashing down on them? I know the play, James, and I think in this case, it made the production even worse. Brecht’s Baal IS confronting, shuddering theatre. Stone and Wright’s Baal was full of cliches and left me indifferent. That’s a crime in theatre. May-Brit

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  • James Waites Says:

    Gosh, so I am not the only one underwhelmed. Still, some good people involved and I am sure we will see more (good) from them. Maybe too Melbourne for us – lol!!

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