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.
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.