Baal | Malthouse Theatre (Pic: Jeff Busby)

Sydney Theatre Company’s new co-production, with Malthouse Melbourne, of Bertolt Brecht’s Baal is akin to the gulf wars waged by American imperialist forces: lots of shock and awe; little material result, other than a lot of bloodshed.

In seeking to be always at the controversial cutting-edge, Tom Wright, who’s hands would seem to be all over this work, despite a relatively humble credit as “co-translator”, risks a lot. For that, in principle at least, he’s to be congratulated. I’d be the first to applaud his risk-taking. But here, things fall on their arse, with a piece that’s far more notable for production design, lighting and music than dramatic performance. Indeed, these aspects tend to compensate, albeit not enough, for a lack of depth and intensity in the last, and an effective trivialisation of Brecht’s play, in bringing it into 21st century Australian vernacular.

The programme notes begin thus: “To understand Baal, perhaps it’s necessary to forget what you know about Brecht.” Yes, perhaps. I’m reminded of a line in the play, which reads something like, “if you understand it, it means the story’s badly told”. It’s a vexing proposition, which tends to suggest the impenetrable, the indecipherable, the downright difficult, is of a higher literary and dramatic order than the straightforward; not an idea I necessarily subscribe to and one which is all too often accompanied by a misplaced kind of pretension and intellectual snobbery. A young Brecht might’ve been as guilty of such as anybody, if not moreso. And this play is when Brecht’s pencils were new; not yet worn down by the rigours of worldly experience. And though new, they lacked sharpness: this is, essentially, an undisciplined, angry young man’s rant; a rage against the machine, or a god, or something.

The title, of course, comes from (pre-)biblical Hebrew and refers to master, or lord. And there is eloquence in this, at least, as it can not only refer to a god, but to human officialdom; authority at large. Ba’al, to give it its Hebraic cadence, came to refer to false gods, and Brecht is clearly bringing this notion into broader context and question, as well he might have, with the likes of a young Adolf gradually finding his ambition at the time of writing.

But this production seems, to me, to miss all of that political potency and becomes merely a discussion about artists as falsely revered gods; its more about rock gods, or master chefs, than the more pernicious idols of which Brecht was so fearful and sounding clanging warnings. This was his first full-length play, and clearly the work of an anxious, agitated agitator. He was still a 20-year-old student at Munich University and the source of his agitation, at the time, was Nazi dramatist Hanns Johst’s Der Einsame (The Loner). In that play, Johst perpetuated the romantically idealised notion of the poet which Brecht found so tediously bourgeois, untrue and unreasonable. Brecht’s view of the artist didn’t really materialise fully until the tragic, tortured souls that might’ve begun with the likes of Van Gogh, but which arguably didn’t fully emerge until the advent of the twisted heroes of 60s and 70s rock: Morrison; Joplin; Hendrix.

Brecht’s artists were bold experimenters, sacrificing not only the comforts of polite society, but prepared to degrade their own bodies in an holistic, soul-searching quest for meaning. Baal is powerful writing insofar as potently interrogating our values and propensities to surrender ourselves to authority, whether the authority be intellectual, military, political, social, or economic.

It’s this surrender that clearly enraged him and which is the source of the value in this early work, which is nonetheless infused with an undisciplined, rambling, obscure, underdeveloped, unsophisticated metaphorical narrative which is, dare I say, heavyhanded and clumsy. Had he not become one of the most influential dramatists of the 20th century and all time, we wouldn’t be backward, I’m sure, in coming forward with such a critical thesis.

Even though Baal is lacking in development, STC/Matlthouse’s production halves the potential, in having too narrow a focus; avoiding the political to focus purely on the bourgeois artistic. Performances, from a telented cast, are good, but by no means great, or compelling. Simon Stone’s direction seems too concerned with fashion, with being part of, representing, or leading, a look, style or movement; too self-involved; too, to put it bluntly, up itself.

It is style over content. Seeming, not being. It is thin, insubstantial, inconsequential, quite unlike the play as written. It misses the point, or some of the points.

It’s a production worth seeing, for it succeeds as visual and aural spectacle, and in being ‘theatrical’. But it’s not so much Brecht, as Brecht-inspired.

The details: Baal plays the Wharf Theatre (Wharf 1) until June 11. Tickets on the company website.

*For another perspective, read Andrew Fuhrmann’s review of the Melbourne season of Baal here