Baal | Malthouse Theatre (Pic: Jeff Busby)

This is an intelligent, analytical and very stylish adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s infamous first play. It features a complicated folding set, three kinds of stage rain, a lot of fancy lighting and more nudity than a weekend with Lucian Freud.

Brecht wrote the play when he was 20 years old, and although it was heavily re-written by Brecht several times through his life, it is palpably the play of a young writer just emerged from the first thrall of poetry, one in which the yearning vitality and egotism of youth still dominates.

The embodiment of this vitality is Baal. He is either a poetic visionary or visionary poet. He stands outside of society, seducing and scandalising by turns. The play has little narrative structure, but through a sequence of picaresque scenes we get a portrait of a young man who chooses to burn out rather than fade away. Or perhaps there is no choice, if he wants to remain true to his Baal-ish self. It is impossible for us to know. Baal is an enigma. Those who try and solve his riddle, those who get too close, are burned up with him. His sexual conquests, his fellow artists and those who drift through life waiting for someone to inspire them, all these are destroyed by the primal demi-urge that is Baal.

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Directed by Simon Stone and co-adapted with the Sydney Theatre Company’s Tom Wright, this production offers an impressive series of bold tableaux. Despite the vivid bodies hurtling through each scene, despite the mess of blood and water, the electric guitar and a kind of unfinished rawness in the adapted text, the play maintains a daunting monumental austerity. But even as the scenes individually present with this elegant austerity, there is a sense of underwhelming quiescence in the way it all fits together.

Brecht’s special insight is to associate his artist-poet with a primal, pre-cultural, anti-rational daemonic spirit like the heathen god Baal. What is magnetic about Baal — and about legendary half-mythical artists such as Caravaggio, Marlowe, Rimbaud and let’s say Jim Morrison — is the fusion of a savage anti-social lifestyle with expressive genius.

Brecht’s artist is a hero of chaos and egotism, one whose amorality places him beyond, or rather before, such tragic heroes as sketched in ancient Athens. For Brecht, and perhaps for Stone, too, the primal egotism (and in so many ways this is a defiantly masculine egotism) is all important here. Baal figures as the young (male) artist’s revolt against his middle-class origins. He is the satanic beacon that seduces other more impressionable young folk (male and female) into a similar anti-cultural revolt against the good order of the suburbs.

Stone’s insight is to associate Baal with the contemporary myth of the disturbed rock ‘n’ roll troubadour. Thus there is Baal, Thomas M Wright, alone on stage with his electric guitar, the rest of the cast, in various states of undress,  softly creep to the edge of his presence, drawn by his potent charisma, a kind of vertiginous longing in their eyes.

So all well and good up until this point. But, still, it is kind of underwhelming. Yes, there seems to be a problem with the text — an adaptation that the program bravely describes as a new “translation” — and this might explain the vagueness of the experience. But there’s also something more interesting at work, which is why right here I’m gonna go off sort of perpendicular…

Baal | Malthouse Theatre (Pic: Jeff Busby)

One aggravating effect of Stone’s clinical style (see also Spring Awakening and Thyestes) is that it always throws me back onto nostalgia. When I should’ve been writing this review, I spent most of Sunday morning surfing YouTube clips of Husker Du, the Jesus & Mary Chain, My Bloody Valentine and all the rest. Why? It seemed somehow extremely relevant and important to deconstruct my teenage romance with dissonance and whitenoise and to retrace, again, exactly the steps that took me from europop to buzzsaw guitars in something like two or three years. The key step of course was Nirvana. Obviously, the point is here that the Luciferous Baal-figure that seduced me — and pretty much every other youth I knew — was rock music. Rock music and ID software. I was never especially into the cult of Kurt Cobain, but there’s no doubt I took him to be a kind of singular outsider-genius who was driven into death by, you know, society and stuff.

Although Stone’s Baal goes in for more of the “inhuman cruelty” than Kurt or Jim ever publicly exhibited, a bit more of the Charles Manson, this production does in a careful way enact a similar deconstruction of a young man’s romance with rock‘n’roll rebellion against the middle class.

The thing is, of course — and this is why it’s aggravating — this kind of nostalgia is a bullshit indulgence (although very nice for a Sunday morning). Contemporary music idols who preach rebellion to teenagers are rarely any kind of genuine outsider figure and preternatural font of originality, and even where they are, the commercial exchange by which cashed-up kids encounter them tends to dissipate the urgent vitality of a true rebellion. What happens instead is a convenient arrangement where the kids get to let off a bit of steam, and various corporate agencies get to make a bit of money. The great manifold of underground alternative rock music options open to today’s discerning rebel all serve the same capitalistic end: channelling adolescent energy into the structured, value neutral milking cup of the music festival. To invert and contemporise William Blake: Kurt Cobain was on God’s side and didn’t know it.

So there is something missing here. The series of links on which this production relies, demon-spirit to rebel-poet to rock-god, doesn’t work. Between Rimbaud and Pete Doherty there’s a gaping hole. And the beast that squats above that hole we might as well call ‘the culture industry’.

I say ‘aggravating’ and ‘bullshit’, but all of this, this inconsistency, is not necessarily a bad thing. Stone and his collaborators are rarely uncritical and here the nostalgia incorporates a sort of interrogation of the self. There seems to be an consciousness of the inconsistency; it’s aggravating, but it also makes this production interesting: that look of vertiginous longing, that soft creeping, as though approaching the edge of the sublime, creative void.

But this production always keeps its distance from the edge.  Never mind the tangle of naked bodies, or mind them only a little, there is a persistent and imposing emptiness that surrounds the on-stage action, in the starkness of the set, the oppressive shadows and the lonely music.

This detachment picks up on Brecht’s own essential coolness. Even though it does not deal in the more technical devices of alienation that he would later theorise, the text of Baal still holds its fiery protagonist at something of a distance. The master playwright later wrote of his first play that it left the spectator’s “splendid isolation” intact. Nothing is more likely to make you feel your isolation, and the integral unreality of other people, than Thomas Wright’s robotic stage laughter.

The details: Baal is at the Merlyn Theatre, Malthouse until April 23 — tickets on the venue website. For the Sydney Theatre Company, it opens at Wharf 1 on May 11 — tickets on the company website.