Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatre (and soon the Sydney Theatre Company) offers an intelligent, analytical and very stylish adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s infamous first play, Baal. 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, and although it was heavily rewritten 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 s-xual 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.

Directed by Simon Stone and co-adapted with STC’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.

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.

Peter Fray

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