Bertolt Brecht’s first play, Baal, is a peculiar bedfellow with the likes of Doctor Faustus and Hedwig and the Angry Inch in this year’s pick of On The Rocks theatre. The play was written before the birth of the political dramaturgy that has made its author so famous, and follows the lassitude and liaisons of the eponymous poet and anti-hero (Andrew Chalmers) as he descends into a world of sex, song, and German Nihilism.
Baal is, at its core, a student play. Written by Brecht when he was only 20 and studying at Munich University, the play is rarely read and even more rarely performed – it takes the initiative of somebody who falls in love with the text, as director Tom Giles did in Venice Beach, to nurture it and bring it to life. This sort of thing can happen only in student theatre – without concerns about profit involved, we have the privilege of doing something purely for the love of it, and that is why this production must be lauded.
This play bore the stamp of great care and attention to detail. The Stage in the Students’ Association is a versatile space, and innovative set design involving a tree made from burlap and wood hung from the lighting rig, complete with handmade pomegranates to act as a symbol for Baal’s Christ-like suffering, created a sense of real craftsmanship, and creativity. This passion was continued in beautiful live-underscoring from Andrew Scott, and an elegant handmade programme by Rebecca Allen Tejerina.
The performances were very strong across the board, although occasionally somewhat at odds with each other – the rawness of Suzanna Swanson-Johnston against the deplorability and bathos of Andrew Chalmers and the brash comedy of Madeleine Inskeep felt, at moments, that they were singing from different hymn-sheets.
The text itself is, at best, problematic. Baal bears the hallmark of a first play, in that it is considerably too long, it is overly romantic, and its intent is unclear. This Brecht before Brechtianism, Brecht before the explicitly political came into his theatre, is a little weird and takes its Nihilist project so far that it starts even to lose meaning as a text. Although the character of Baal himself is interesting, and there were some very poetic moments, I have little difficulty understanding why Baal has so seldom been performed.
I will not be rushing to see Baal as a text performed again any time soon, but this production was carefully put together by people passionate about their project, and it is an excellent poster-child for the importance of student theatre. Which member of this team, I wonder, will find this production to have been the Baal to their Mother Courage and Her Children?
For further exploration of Baal, find the absolutely absurd review by David Bowie.