A forest of well dressed, well spoken women gather around a hunched hooded figure as sound throbs and squeals from an electric guitar. They look on in wonder as sound scratches and echoes from an amplifier. Its the noise of a tortured animal – desperate and dangerous. The women look on. They applaud and cheer the young, scruffy man -they toast his brilliance with champagne and offer their money and influence to promote and support his art.

Written by Brecht in 1918, and now adapted by Simon Stone and Tom Wright, Baal is a very bleak portrait of an artist as a young man. An ugly, selfish, self-obsessed, righteous misogynist/ extremist/outsider, seducer/anarchist. Though Brecht’s first play (at the age of 20) -it was not produced until five years later. And then after a period of development with Elisabeth Hauptmann – it was remounted. And here we are nearly 100 years later, on the opposite side of the world with Mr Adaption himself (Tom Wright) and Mr Wunderkind (Simon Stone) reworking this “classic.”

In this production, Baal is a sexual and emotional tyrant – not only to the women he plows through, but to his best friend. We see women, spellbound and silly and self-destructively sacrifice their dignity (and lives) at the altar of Baal’s art/fame. We watch as the artist rants and raves and retaliates against the very society/infrastructure that supports him. We watch as hedonism rules absolutely – scantily-clad orgies on sodden mattresses. The story line is very simple and so I’ll reference that excellent source of theatre/literary criticism – Wikipedia:
“Baal roams the countryside, womanizing and brawling. He seduces Johanna, who subsequently drowns herself. He spurns his pregnant mistress Sophie and abandons her. He murders his friend Ekart, becoming a fugitive from the police. Defiantly aloof from the consequences of his actions, Baal is nonetheless brought low by his debauchery, dying alone in a forest hut, hunted and deserted, and leaving in his wake the corpses of deflowered maidens and murdered friends.”
Which leads us to the message – “pride comes before a fall.”

All these ideas are portrayed very clearly in this production. We see the lifestyle carry Baal into a deeper level of searching for some sort of sensation, satisfaction – or perhaps a barrier – we watch as he disposed and destroys all around him – even those he loves. But the surprising this for me is how little this mattered to me. I watched as I saw self-destructive/needy people destroyed by their own behaviour. And I was left sitting there unmoved, uninterested and slightly bored. And I think this is a wonderful reaction to have to theatre, mainly because it forced me to question –
1. Why was I bored?
2. Why was this story told here and now.

And in examination I guess I uncovered a lot of my own reflections on contemporary society. I must admit that the excessive hedonism and nihilism and self-harming behaviour of my generation – a generation so over-loved by our baby boomer parents we feel numb to everything but our own self-obsession and wants – is everywhere. It is on TV, in magazines – sex, drugs, alcohol, re-hab, scandal, overdoses, suicides, misogyny, use and abuse of people, capitalism, fashion, fame, money – it’s so commonly popularised, so often talked about, and exposed. The underbelly of celebrity and society is so exposed, that I am numb to it too. I feel surrounded by images of beautiful women who are ultimately pawns of male ego. We live in an age where there is no shame. Where there are no taboos. Where extreme behaviour is accepted and somewhat expected. I need go no further than the popular website “Girls Gone Wild” – which I heard about when I found myself at a biker convention in Port Dover, Canada some years ago (it was an accident – I wasn’t there on business) where I witnessed first-hand the roaming camera crews encouraging women to show their bits to camera.

So -what about all the “provocative” aspects of the show. That is, the nudity. Well, a bit ho-hum, really.

And this is what I think about nudity on stage – It’s a bit like blasting the audience in the eyes – we get distracted. We start thinking about other things – so to pull off nudity on stage (pardon the pun) – I think the story has to be the strongest, most compelling thing – and it must be told in a strong and compelling way.

And for me, it wasn’t.

The adaption itself seemed to be obsessed with the sound of the language – declamatory and forced and overt – and therefore clumsy. The delivery seemed equally as staccato, stylized and forced. I found the style itself alienating (harking back to Brecht’s ideas within Epic Theatre – which is interesting since I don’t think he’d yet developed that idea when he wrote BAAL – so to overlay that directorial style on this texts seems somewhat anachronistic). I found the characters to be utterly basic and one dimensional – with little to no sub-textual level and therefore without any major transformation or change. And I wasn’t sure what I was being asked to feel. Was I to feel sorry for Baal? Or his friends? Or the women? I felt was disconnected from them all. I also felt like it was all a fore-gone conclusion. They brought about their own demise – but did I care? Nope.

And so I asked myself, “why don’t I care?”

Is this an example of my own numbness? Perhaps. But I guess it came back to the fact that I feel like that world- where desire is soley manifested in the act of sex, and sex is confused for love. And stimulation is synthetic and drug-induced and it is so far away from my life, reality/experience that I had no connection to it – at all. I watch on as the embarrassing pink-fleshed animals of my species destroy each other and I think – well… I’ve learnt nothing – this is what I assumed of this world and it follows what I believe – ego is ugly, fame is fickle, fame creates a false sense of power, entitlement and immortality, having no values hurts. So I was vindicated, but not transformed.

So I was not shocked. Not engaged with. I felt disinterested in the story and the characters.

Why was this story told here and now? Well, I guess it’s a reflection of moral decay – as discussed above. A portrait of hero-worship at its most sick and destructive. Sure. So is Amy Winehouse’s descent as documented in the tabloid newspapers of 2007… what does Baal add to this portrayal of tortured artist?

Well, I must admit the set and the lighting by Nick Schlieper was simply spectacular – like that of Olafur Eliasson – and of course, it wouldn’t be a STC show if something (water, snow, glitter) didn’t rain down on stage. So thumbs up for the set.. I just found the story dull, the characters un-likeable and the language overly formal and over the top and overt. (Vocally, the most interesting moment for me was the last 90 seconds when we heard a slice of naturalism.)